Prom 19, Royal Albert Hall, London

Alexandra Coghlan is unsure about Oliver Knussen’s musical mix.

Prom 19
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

There may not have been any shrunken heads or novelty snuff boxes on display at Prom 19, which took place on 29 July, but the programme from Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) was still something of a cabinet of curiosities. With his fondness for kitsch, oddity and the extreme, Knussen's annual Proms adventure can be relied on to showcase the unexpected. His gallery of assorted 20th-century works promised sensation. Could it, however, also offer substance?

Knussen's selections this year were a series of variations on a theme; five pieces engaged in a colourful conversation about music's capacity to describe and evoke (with the last word going to Claude Debussy's La Mer). A sixth work, Alban Berg's miniature song cycle in praise of drink, Der Wein, provided a contrary centrepiece, an abstract exercise in symbolism.

Benjamin Britten, Johann Strauss, Steve Reich, Percy Grainger - the list of composers inspired by rail travel is long and disparate. Arthur Honegger joined them in 1923 with Pacific 231 and it was with its syncopated orchestral judderings and a scream of strings that we embarked upon our evening. Surrendering to its mechanistic patternings and propulsive force, the BBCSO gave us a well-paced account, though it lacked the industrial violence of some interpretations. This was more Sunday outing than rush-hour dash and there was little sense of the brutal power of steam technology that Honegger's orchestration so vividly channels.

Better suited to the orchestra's contemplative mood (had it spent its urgency performing Verdi's Requiem the previous weekend?) were Honegger's Pastorale d'été and Frank Bridge's Hamlet-inspired There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. Sleepy heat radiated from the chamber ensemble, with the strings stretching into a horn solo. Honegger's pastoral echoes with bird cries and, post-Rite of Spring, it's hard to ignore the naivety of its sylvan potterings.

Bridge's piece proved another rather unfashionable treat. Too polite to relinquish tonality altogether, its plangent bitonality anticipates the music of the composer's pupil Britten. Keening sighs from the strings lament Ophelia's death, while a harp briefly impersonates a lute, frothing over the sinking figure. Knussen's ear for textural detail is justly celebrated and was evident here in the beautifully balanced layers of Bridge's sonic world.

Perhaps the least familiar of Knussen's curiosities was Niccolò Castiglioni's Inverno inver - a set of 11 musical poems on the subject of winter. Playing to Castiglioni's signature crystalline textures, the work's palette of whites and silvers is explored in subtle variations. The strident, glassy shriekings of the "Danza invernale" are replaced by teeth-chattering wind textures for the "Saltarello". Making a plausible intellectual case for the work, Knussen drew the ear to the classical forms buried under Castiglioni's snowfall, the musical structures whose familiar outlines are so disconcertingly transformed in this bleached landscape.

My ear may have been numbed by the re­lentlessly brilliant timbre of the Castiglioni but the deeper swells of horn and low strings emerged with new clarity from Debussy's La Mer, leaving the glockenspiel and harp as mere foam on the waves. Restored to its full strength (with the added power of the comforting rows of additional brass), we finally heard the BBCSO - the hardest-working orchestra at the Proms - at its best, its solo wind and brass voices emerging crisply from the continuous surge and release of Knussen's ensemble texture in a glorious finale.

A programme such as this is surely all about conversation - colliding musical works to release their energy, animating their similarities, differences and developments. While in theory, Knussen's selections represented a many-voiced dialogue, in performance, many seemed to share a single viewpoint, leaving us in too comfortable agreement for true satisfaction.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy