BBC SO / Robertson

The American conductor David Robertson is less widely known than he ought to be, perhaps because his name is so unexotic. For eight years he was director of Pierre Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain, and now directs the St Louis Symphony. His regular appearances with the BBC Symphony as their principal guest conductor are a boon both to the orchestra and its audiences.

Friday night was typical of his wide-awake programming, using Josquin des Prez's meditation on the death of his friend and teacher Johannes Ockeghem, Nymphes des Bois, and Boulez's esoteric Rituel for his colleague Bruno Maderna to draw out something fresh from Mozart's Requiem. The Josquin lacked shape; the Boulez was magnificently done. Scored for eight groups of similar instruments, each led by a percussionist, Rituel is at once an arcane meditation on death and a fabulously primordial act of mourning. Shrill choirs of oboes and muted brass, shimmering tamtams and eerie thuds conjure images of antiquity so powerful that they might come directly from Sophocles' Thebes. This relies partly on spontaneous asynchronies arising between the various groups. Thus, directing it requires great control but also the ability to delegate – less common among conductors.

Mozart's funereal work emerged duly enlivened – if that's not the wrong image – its rhythms less fluent and more mournful, its reedy timbres echoing the Boulez. The soloists were given admirably free expressive rein, to the credit particularly of Elizabeth Watts, Ed Lyons and, of course, Robertson himself.

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