Igor to please

Alexandra Coghlan has a subtly spiritual experience at the Proms.

BBC Singers, London Sinfonietta, David Atherton
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London W8

The Royal Albert Hall - or, to give it its full name, the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences - is London's most impressive monument to secular achievement: an architectural hymn to man that reaches its climax in the giant proportions of the structure itself. It's a space made for the music of Stravinsky, the master of reinventing the sacred for a secular age. That it should at the same time play host to the ascetic Lutheran purity of J S Bach is Proms programming at its best.

The festivals of Christmas and Easter provided the frame for the London Sinfonietta's late-night Prom of sacred music. As formally elegant as its repertoire - Bach's mighty Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch", Stravinsky's reorchestration thereof and his own, rarely performed Threni - the programme offered up its works as a set of unusual variations on a single musical theme.

“See, O Lord, and consider; for I am become vile." Delivering that bleakest of Holy Week texts - the Lamentations of Jeremiah - with violent clarity, the BBC Singers, London Sinfonietta and a team of English soloists dared their audience to try to look away from the contortions of Threni. Its melodic skin flayed clean away, Stravinsky's first experiment with pure 12-tone writing leaves its musical musculature raw and exposed - the classical form dead, but still disturbingly warm to the touch.

Composed for the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice in 1958, Threni was intended to be a Passion, inspired perhaps by the Crucifixion that dominates the many Tintorettos covering the walls. Confused threads of muted colour and movement draw the eye, but lead inevitably back to the relentless perpendicular - the cross at the centre of the painting. The tone-row at the core of Threni mirrors this, its immutable structure a cipher to Stravinsky's apparent aural chaos.

Led by the Old Testament bass of John Tomlinson, the six soloists negotiated a careful path between emotive text and rigidly serial music. Aided by flickering gasps of orchestral colour, they brought out the tonally suggestive, ritual beauty this work struggles to give up.

The Chorale Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch", joyously colourful where Threni is muted, provided a contrasting prelude. We first heard this great Christmas chorale in Bach's original Canonic Variations for organ, the lumbering weight of the Albert Hall's instrument doing little to assist the organist Daniel Hyde or persuade us it had any business in this repertoire. Yet Stravinsky's reworking for choir and orchestra was an altogether more allusive affair. Preserving the original's complex architecture, he insinuates textural additions among Bach's columns and arches, an achievement rendered elegantly clear by the London Sinfonietta.

There was nothing overtly spiritual in this music as delivered by David Atherton and his musicians. Its progress towards the divine was so gradual, so oblique, that it was only when startled by the sudden vulgarity of applause that we realised we'd been part, not of an audience, but of a congregation.

The 2010 BBC Proms run until 11 September

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science