The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s Tremendous Achievement in Mahler

08/08/2015

   Tansy Davies, Mahler. National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7.8.2015 (JQ)

Tansy DaviesRe-Greening (2015)
Mahler – Symphony No 9

Founded in 1948, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYOGB) is widely acknowledged as a key institution in British musical life; many of its members over the years have gone on to have rewarding careers in the profession.  Open to musicians aged between 13 and 19 years of age, the membership is selected each year and then takes part in residential courses during the school holidays, at each one of which they work on a programme and play it in concert. They don’t mess around when it comes to the choice of music. For example, a couple of years ago I heard them in Messiaen’s vast and exotic Turangalîla-Symphonie (review) and I recall vividly hearing them memorably perform Mahler’s Eighth under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in 2002. Both of those performances took place in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and were then repeated at the Proms. Nor do they mess around when it comes to the conductors with whom they work; indeed the roster of conductors who have appeared with the NYOGB reads like a Who’s Who of baton-wielders. Tonight they were led by Sir Mark Elder who, as a bassoonist, played with the orchestra in his student days – I suspect his membership may have preceded by two or three years that of another distinguished alumnus, Sir Simon Rattle.

In fact Elder’s services were not required tonight for the first piece on the programme, Re-Greening by Tansy Davies. It wasn’t quite clear from the programme whether or not this was the work’s first performance. In fact I have subsequently discovered that it wasn’t; the orchestra has played it at least once – at Snape Maltings Concert Hall – prior to this concert.  The composer’s fairly terse programme note told us that in this score “Endless refrains, woven out of intricate, inter-connecting segments combine to form a kind of musical forest.” Trailing the piece, which is to be played at the BBC Proms on 8 August, Radio 3 indicated that the piece was inspired by Mahler’s Ninth, though I couldn’t discern a connection myself at a first hearing. What the composer didn’t mention in her note – this information was tucked away in a little note by the NYOGB’s leader – is that the piece is played without a conductor and that sections of it are played from memory.

In this performance Re-Greening played for about nine minutes. The leader, Stephanie Childress, clearly took a good deal of responsibility for giving leads and I imagine that this responsibility was cascaded further down to section principals. The score certainly is, as the composer says, “intricate” with a good deal of material passing round the vast orchestra. It was a singular achievement for the young musicians to keep the piece not only on track but also sounding incisive without any direction from the podium. And yet I’m afraid the piece made little impression on me. It seemed to contain many effects that are all-too familiar from contemporary orchestral scores – hyper-active passages for woodwind, including a good number of Messiaen-like swirls, and lots of tinkling percussion – but it was hard to discern at first hearing where the musical substance, if any, lay. In an original touch Ms Davies required some of the players to sing at two points in the score – Sumer is icumen in early on and then Thomas Tallis’s hymn tune All praise to Thee, my God, this Night as the work achieved a subdued and effective close. I wish the significance of these interpolations had been explained in the programme notes.

With the exception of those two sung passages I’m afraid that Re-Greening made little impression on me: a few minutes into the Mahler symphony and I’d completely forgotten it. Clearly it’s important for the NYOGB to play new music and I’m sure the orchestra enjoyed it. It’s only fair to record that the performance was warmly received by the audience but I wonder how many more performances it will receive.

The musical substance in the programme was provided by Mahler. The orchestra had pulled off something of a coup in engaging Sir Mark Elder for this performance because not only is he a highly distinguished conductor but also he has recently displayed his command of this very score through an extremely fine live recording with the Hallé (review). Elder’s arrangement of the string sections calls for comment. The key thing was his decision to divide the violins left and right. He had the violas on his right and the cellos on his left while the double basses were grouped to his left hand side, at the edge of the stage and behind the first violins. This arrangement brought a loss and a gain. The loss was that from where I was sitting – slightly to the right of the conductor – the double basses were largely inaudible. That was a pity; I found that the bass line of the string ensemble was provided by the excellent cello section. However, the gain – and it was a very important one – was that the second violin part emerged with greater clarity than I’ve ever heard it, either live or on disc – I’m as sure as I can be that on his Hallé recording Elder did not divide the fiddles. I can’t recall attending a live performance of this symphony – or, indeed, of any Mahler symphony – for which the violins were divided in this way but the effect was, frankly, revelatory. And Elder clearly felt this division was crucially important for it was noticeable how much attention he paid to the seconds, repeatedly willing them to bring out their line, which they did to excellent effect.

The performance was a triumph. This symphony is one of the greatest and deepest symphonic works of the twentieth century. It is enormously exacting, not just technically but also emotionally, and these young musicians accepted and rose to its manifold challenges with relish – I noted that even on the back desks of the violin sections evident physical commitment was shown throughout the evening. The long, remarkable first movement began promisingly, the strings phrasing beautifully in the opening pages; the rest of the orchestra took their cue from that. In all sections of the orchestra the playing was impressively secure and highly motivated. There were some 160 musicians involved and there were a few occasions, both here and in the other three movements, when despite the sensitivity of the players, one was aware that the orchestra is larger than one would normally hear in this music. Yet never did the large ensemble sound unwieldy and Elder and his players were most attentive to dynamics and other matters of detail. The performance was gripping and the exposed writing in the last few minutes of the movement were impressively negotiated. This is fantastically difficult music to play, let alone to play with such assurance, but these young musicians were never daunted by Mahler’s demands.

At the start of the Ländler second movement, taken at a steady, sturdy pace by Elder as on his CD, the second violins really dug into their music as, subsequently, did all the string sections. This was a robust and strongly projected account of the music in which Mahler’s sardonic humour was brought out very well. There was a genuine Mahler style in the orchestra’s playing.  The Rondo-Burleske was on fire from the start, the playing acute and the rhythms sharply articulated. This was music that benefitted hugely from the sheer commitment of these young musicians. But even amid the tumult there was a clearly evident attention to detail on the part of both conductor and orchestra. In the slower central section with its premonition of the Adagio to come the NYOGB’s principal trumpet had just the right silvery tone. In this section I felt Elder’s tempo was a bit too swift; the music wasn’t as nostalgically peaceful as it should be. When the Rondo material returned no prisoners were taken; the movement was driven to a scalding conclusion, the final pages being positively incendiary.

For the great concluding Adagio Elder dispensed with his baton, the better to mould the music expressively. This is a huge test for any orchestra but the opening paragraphs augured well; the string playing was outstandingly eloquent, the musicians manifestly giving their all. As the movement unfolded there were one or two instances when exposed woodwind passages weren’t quite ‘there’ but these were minor blemishes. The last and biggest of the movement’s climaxes was amazingly intense; here, and in the passage that follows where they have a noble counterpoint to the strings’ material, the playing of the horn section was outstanding. From here the gradual wind-down to the end was masterfully controlled by Elder. In the concluding pages, where time seems to stand ever more still, the NYOGB’s strings displayed astonishing delicacy and refinement. It was deeply disappointing that their outstanding efforts here were to some extent compromised by extraneous noises from a some fidgety members of the audience. Rightly, Elder held the moment after the last sounds had evaporated so that premature applause did not intrude. But the applause when it came was deservedly enthusiastic.

This performance was a tremendous achievement by the orchestra. In particular I have to say that I was very moved to hear the wonderful Adagio, which is so emotionally demanding of the players, presented here with such eloquence and commitment.

Elder and the orchestra will give this programme again at the BBC Proms on 8 August. If you miss the live broadcast then do try to hear it either through the BBC iPlayer, if you can access it or when it is repeated on Radio 3 on 17 August at 14:00

John Quinn  

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