PROM 26: The European Union Youth Orchestra Bring Twentieth Century Masterworks to the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom  26: Berio, Shostakovich. European Union Youth Orchestra, London Voices, Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.8.2014 (RB)

Berio – Sinfonia (1968-69)
Shostakovich – Symphony No 4 in C Minor Op 43


The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) is a cultural ambassador for the European Union and is an auspicious group of many of our most gifted and talented young musicians.  One of the key aims of the orchestra is to provide challenge and stretch to these young players and they certainly had their hands full with this concert of 20th Century masterpieces.  The advertised conductor for the programme, Semyon Bychkov, had to withdraw and Vasily Petrenko took up the baton in his absence.

Berio’s Sinfonia was written for the New York Philharmonic and they gave the first performance of the work with the Swingle Singers under the baton of Leonard Bernstein in 1968.  Berio was in the USA when he wrote the work and he takes up the language of protest in the text by making reference to a number of contemporary events, including the assassination of Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War.  He explores the origins of music and symphonic writing (quoting Lévi-Strauss’s book The Raw and the Cooked) and there are existential musings drawing on Beckett’s The Unnamable.  Berio uses eight amplified voices which speak, whisper and shout the text as well as sing.

The EUYO were excellent in depicting the gradual build-up of sound in the opening movement and were clearly relishing the opportunity to explore the composer’s experimental harmonies and sound combinations while London Voices depicted the chatter and hum of the streets.  There was an eerie calm at the opening of the second movement as references are made to the death of Martin Luther King.  Petrenko kept a firm hand on the tiller in the third movement as ghostly echoes of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony formed a backdrop to an extraordinary collage of sound (including fragments from Ravel’s La Valse and Debussy’s La Mer).  London Voices were also clearly having fun with Beckett’s The Unnamable which was performed almost as a radio drama – the detritus of everyday life elevated to an art form.  Bravo to the orchestra’s leader, Mathieu van Bellen, for doing such a splendid job with the violin solos.  The EUYO created some luminous, mystical harmonies in the fourth movement while London Voices gave us some hushed whispers that seemed to have a neurotic feel.  The final movement was bristling with energy with the EUYO and London Voices creating a rich, shifting palette of colours and sonorities that became increasingly animated and disorientating.

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was written more than 30 years before the Berio but the composer withdrew the work from a planned performance in 1936 following the notorious, hard-hitting article in Pravda about his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  The work was not heard until 1961 with the advent of a more liberal political climate in Russia.  The symphony was written at the height of Stalin’s Purges and the sense of alienation, anxiety and paranoia that typify this period are reflected in the work.

Petrenko is a leading exponent of Shostakovich and has released a generally well-regarded recording of the Fourth Symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (review).  His choice of tempi for the first movement were all spot on and he seemed at pains to bring out every detailed phrase and nuance of the score.  The shrill opening on woodwind and xylophone was perfectly realised before brass and strings made their bombastic entrance with the martial music.  The principal bassoon did an excellent job with his solo before the brass, woodwind and percussion added their own savage interjections.  The string fugue towards the end of the first movement was very fast indeed and Petrenko succeeded in keeping the voices and textures admirably clear – this was a real tour de force.  In the second movement, Petrenko kept all the lines very clean and precise and there was scrupulous attention to detail in the phrasing.  The orchestra seemed to convey an emotional distance in the music and there were some scabrous and grotesque sounds in the woodwind.  The percussionists produced some tightly controlled rhythmic figurations to end the movement in style.

The final movement starts off with a Mahlerian funeral march and here the EUYO conveyed the sense of disquiet in the score – a pall seemed to resonate throughout the Royal Albert Hall.  There is some extraordinary fairground music in this movement – almost a surreal reference to things not being as they appear to be; the listener is suddenly placed in a Hall of Mirrors where reflections and perceptions are distorted.  I particularly liked the pirouettes of the woodwind and swoons of the strings in this section and the sense of mock joviality conveyed by the EUYO.  The percussionists signalled a return to the funeral march section with some dramatic, high voltage playing.  The EUYO were terrific in conveying the sense of unrelieved bleakness and dread that permeates the coda before the music finally faded away to chimes of a celesta.

Bravo to Petrenko and the EUYO for doing such a brilliant job with two of the most complex and difficult works in the 20th Century repertoire – it shows the exceptionally high standard which young musicians have attained across the European Union and is a sign of great things still to come.

Robert Beattie

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