Three Choirs Festival 2011 (7) – Young Scottish Musicians propel Worcester into the 21st Century.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Mahler, James MacMillan: National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Christoph-Mathias Mueller (conductor), Jane Irwin (soprano), Worcester Cathedral, 11.8.2011 (RJ)

Most of the major concerts of the Three Choirs Festival follow a well-tried pattern, but this contribution by The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland – on their ever visit to the Festival – was refreshingly different and challenging. Themusicians were directed by a Swiss conductor with impeccable credentials having previously worked with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under Claudio Abbado.

Mr Mueller judged the acoustics of Worcester Cathedral perfectly in Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. The music of Prélude à la nuit seemed to emerge from the mist and retained a sense of delicacy until the end with the woodwind providing some evocative sounds. Similar restraint was exercised at the start of the Malagueña with its quicker rhythms until the trumpets made their presence felt and the whole orchestra joined in for a brief show of strength. However an exemplary cor anglais solo calmed things down and led back to the muted rhythms of the opening. The Habanera was taken a shade too slowly for my taste, as if the conductor was anxious not to diminish the impact of the lively Fera, which concludes the work. This was marked by a lively carnival atmosphere onto which the shadows of the night were to intrude. This was an exquisite performance with restrained playing and excellent phrasing in all sections of the orchestra.

Mr Mueller also held the orchestra in check in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; and not once did the instruments overwhelm the singer, soprano Jane Irwin. It was interesting to compare this version of this early Mahler work with his setting for baritone with piano accompaniment which I had heard live last month. Despite the vastness of the cathedral the performance was surprisingly intimate with the singer able to project the words right to the back where I was sitting. The transition from grief to delight in the wonders of nature in the first song was well expressed while in Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld the emotions were reversed as joy soon changed into wistfulness. The third song with its stuttering trumpets and trombones upset the atmosphere of melancholy calm and was an altogether disturbing and frightening affair. There were more hints of the music Mahler would go on to write in Die zwei blauen Augen with its forlorn funeral march. Jane Irwin’s singing was intensely moving in this with the accompanying violins sounding like a wordless chorus. The music eventually melted away.

The NYOS deserve to be congratulated for even attempting Symphony No 3 by their compatriot James Macmillan; that they should try and succeed in impressing so many members of the large audience (not all of them Scots!) is a considerable achievement. This is a contemplative, melancholic work inspired by Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, and the symphony begins and ends with a bar or so of silence. There are several references to Oriental music in the piece including the Japanese shakuhachi, the sound of which is imitated by three (western) flutes accompanied by marimba and cello harmonics, and in later passages which are inflected with microtones. The central sections are loud swirling passages in which the brass and percussion come to the fore interrupted by moments of intense desolation, which gradually takes over.

I will not make the mistake of making a critical appraisal of a complex work of this nature after only one hearing. However, I believe I am on safe ground in describing this performance as a tour de force by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland who displayed enormous commitment, concentration and maturity in bringing it off with such aplomb. Christoph-Mathias Mueller is clearly a conductor-trainer of the highest order – a quality appreciated by his exhausted musicians who joined in the sustained applause at the end.

Roger Jones

The performance was recorded for future broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland.