Strauss’s Mountain Journey Confidently Negotiated

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss: Claire Seaton (soprano), Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra,/James Blair (conductor), St John’s Smith Square, London, 30.9.2015 (AS)

Richard Strauss, Vier letzte Lieder, Op. posth & Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64

The Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1971, is a training organisation that helps young players between the ages of 18 and 25 bridge the gap between the security of college education and the competitive life of professional performance. It is a charity that is entirely reliant on the support of individuals and corporations and receives no funds from national or local government. Alumni of the YMSO play in virtually every professional orchestra in the United Kingdom. The Principal Conductor and Artistic director, James Blair, has been associated with the organisation for almost the whole of its existence. The Orchestra gives four concerts a year, usually under Blair himself.

The players are drawn from a pool of young people who have been accepted as having reached a suitable degree of mastery of their instruments: on this occasion most if not all of these must have been called upon to make up the huge orchestra that is needed for a performance of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.

In the first part of the concert we heard Claire Seaton sing Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Her voice has an attractively rich quality, and it is big enough to allow her to soar over Strauss’s opulent orchestral scoring with ease. Technically, too, Seaton’s performance was first-rate, and her intonation was totally secure. Missing, perhaps, was the feeling that she was totally involved in the content of the four poems that inspired Strauss’s attention: there was a certain reserve in her delivery and her German enunciation was less than ideally clear. The orchestral contribution, though efficient, was a little sober and lacklustre in nature.

It’s possible that some of the players were also present when Bernard Haitink conducted the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra in a memorable performance of the Alpine Symphony a few years ago. Perhaps notions that it is inferior to such Strauss works as Ein Heldenleben and Don Quixote are now at last receding, for it is surely as masterful a composition as are they. James Blair’s performance made a fine case for it. He steered an immaculately secure course through all its complexities and variations of mood: tempi were all well-judged, the balance was always good and the playing was well disciplined. The strings and woodwind were first-rate, but occasional lapses occurred in the horn section – or sections, since in addition to the nine onstage horns, the 12 players situated in the gallery made a fine antiphonal noise in their regrettably brief contributions. No wonder the piece is so seldom played when such extravagant scoring is involved.

For once the boomy acoustics of St John’s seemed absolutely right for the occasion, and a heartwarmingly large audience clearly relished the gorgeous sounds that were unleashed.

Alan Sanders

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