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"Nixon in China" breaks all the rules

John Adams's impressive Proms performance

Mao shakes hands with Nixon in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images

Proms Review: Nixon In China, Adams / Vienna Philharmonic, Haitink

John Adams’ dense, discursive Nixon in China breaks all the rules – not least in being a 20th-century opera that has found its way into the regular repertoire. The composer’s expansive minimalism expands and contracts its patternings to accommodate the personal and political currents of Richard Nixon’s iconic encounter with Chairman Mao. Performed in concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under John Adams itself, this was always going to be a thrilling end to the Proms’ opera season.

There’s always the danger of indulgence when it comes to composers conducting their own music, but if Adams was enjoying himself here he didn’t let it show. The pulsing motor-rhythms of Adams’ score usually generate a muscular momentum, stressing vertical moment-to-moment harmonic sensations, but under the composer’s direction a horizontal line of continuity emerged, taking the mechanistic edge off the textures and distancing Adams’ expressive, flexible style even further from fellow minimalists Reich and even Glass.

Director Paul Curran did what he could with this awkward space (the bathetic transformation of Sellars’ original landing sequence into a toy plane, passed from hand to hand, was a witty touch), but ultimately much responsibility fell the orchestra to help carry the audience from the naturalism of the early scenes to the decayed and increasingly fantastical reality of the latter.

The BBC Singers – a vocal toy plane compared to a full-size opera chorus – performed their own transformation, bringing clarity and character to Adams’ essential chorus sections. They held their own among a cast that no wish-list could better. Robert Orth’s Nixon sat just the right side of caricature, balancing his folksy artifice with beauty of vocal tone, and supported by the warmth of Jessica Rivera’s Pat. Kathleen Kim (already an astonishing Madame Mao on stage) stole hearts and scenes with the ferocious excellence of her coloratura. It was left however to Gerald Finley’s contemplative Chou En-lai to have the last word, sending us out into the night in the undulating embrace of his final aria, a passionate and poetic raging against the dying of the light.

Murray Perahia or Bernard Haitink alone could ensure a packed Royal Albert Hall. Performing together, and with the support of the mighty Vienna Philharmonic, the queues of people waiting in the small hope of returns stretched back to the doors. While Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic this season strayed out of their core territory with excursions into Ligeti and Debussy, the Vienna Philharmonic stayed squarely in their musical heartland.

Skipping straight to the meat of the evening, Haitink opened with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto – an inspired act of defiance to programming convention that heightened Beethoven’s own. Dispensing with the usual orchestral introduction the composer allows the soloist to speak first, and in a full-to-bursting Royal Albert Hall it was left to Perahia to cut into the heavy silence with the gentle insistence of Beethoven’s chords. Neither he nor Haitink are musicians given to excess, and here we witnessed them taming into submission not only of the traditional orchestral Furies, but also an even more defiant acoustic space.

While occasional ensemble issues (and a curious moment of wind intonation) kept Haitink vigilant, Perahia was supreme in his control. His is a matter-of-fact reading of this concerto – from the start there’s no doubt that his solo piano will prove victorious – but amid this understated precision a joyous syncopated emphasis emerged. Mined often by soloists for its lyricism, the concerto is lively with offbeat accents, passages that strive against the prevailing current, which achieved characterful dominance here.

Bruckner’s unfinished 9th Symphony completed the evening, performed in its three-movement version rather than with any of the various scholarly completions. It’s a choice that leaves listeners in desperate uncertainty of the Adagio – a powerful cry of fear by a composer staring into the abyss of modernism.

Haitink’s authority in this repertoire in unequalled, and the measured tread of his pacing generated a Scherzo whose humour was black indeed and an Adagio that, if it lacked quite the fragmentary desperation of some performances, confronted terrors with steady gaze. The Vienna strings cast aside Beethovenian brilliance for a weightier sound, aided by a brass section who brought portent and authority rather than all-out force.

What a week to bring the 2012 BBC Proms to a their close, leading us down into the darkest musical place in the fears of old men before taking us back into the light in an exuberant programme for the Last Night. For my part though the festival can keep their sea-shanties and Rule Britannias – I’ll be wallowing just a little longer in the gorgeous darkness, savouring the torment with Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic.