The National Youth Orchestra in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dean, Szymanowski, Rachmaninov: Tamara Stefanovich (piano), National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain / John Wilson (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 6.1.2017. (RD)

Lauren Marshall – Suspended between earth and air

Brett Dean – Komarov’s Fall

Szymanowski – Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony No.4)

Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2

The introduction to the National Youth Orchestra’s website proclaims it “the world’s greatest orchestra for teenagers”. Well, maybe. There is always a tendency to make a case for our own, although to make risky comparisons with what is going on in Russia, or Israel, Venezuela, or even Iraq, seems a mite audacious. Yet why not blow the trumpet for Britain? And indeed, if this brilliant ensemble’s latest sortie, to Nottingham, Birmingham and the Southbank, is anything to go by, perhaps that bold claim may be not so far from the truth.

This is an orchestra of marvellous flair and panache, profoundly intelligent, miraculously accurate, immensely responsive to scores of different hues, romantic and modern, producing a thrilling overall sound that is sheer joy to listen to. “Aurally volcanic” was how The Observer dubbed these breathtakingly talented young players. And indeed there were plenty of full-blooded explosions throughout this concert.

The chief surprise was an unexpected opener, Suspended between earth and air, by Lauren Marshall. She studied at the Purcell School and is currently NYO’s Principal Composer. This work turned out to be a miracle of inspiration. To behold at the outset eight trombones and a mass of horns arrayed in front of us, with a vast, possibly quadruple, spread of woodwind and strings, was in itself pretty astonishing, even if the NYO has more than 160 players to call upon.

But the impression made by Marshall’s largescale yet compact, beautifully argued piece and its use of a bigger-than-Wagner sized orchestra was astonishing: so atmospheric, indeed, that it actually managed to upstage Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall, a piece with which it had affinities both in subject matter (the might of the universe) and deployment of thickly massed orchestral sections. The start alone made a wondrous impact: low tympani, growling soft trombone, yielding to a striking early string build-up and some vivid chattering — almost a conversation — from the percussion. Some of the birdlike chirruping in the strings sounded uncannily like Szymanowski (the opening of his Violin Concerto No.2), which was especially appropriate given what was to come.

Close-harmonied woodwind grew to a positively screaming effect, with brass soon blazing through and dominating. Indeed the strings themselves, en masse, were insistent, blaring and blazing. The NYO strings make a very forward and forceful sound, which, if mildly overbearing later on, was wholly apt here. The music grows more ominous, until a kind of grieving chorale bursts from the large woodwind section, before the music briskly subsides to nothing. The work as a whole seemed both masterly in its vivid contrasts and the imagination with which the full orchestra was deployed in a series of dramatically counterpointed passages. Very ably and sensibly conducted by an unnamed teenage member of the cello section, it made a stupendous impact.

All sections were equally alert in the comparable challenges of Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall, effectively a symphonic poem roughly similar in length. It recalls the tragic accident that befell a Russian astronaut in 1967, the first fatal accident in space. Here John Wilson, the evening’s inspiring conductor, took the helm. He established a particularly good rapport with the string section, and had utter control of the others and of overall balances. The start of Dean’s work is very tentative, mysterious, with peeps from the solo violin of the astute leader (Leora Cohen, a very popular performer) and shivers of percussion, eerily introduced by a shaken silver paper effect. The twittering and nattering in the strings evokes a feel of hectic wireless communications. When the brass interjects, it does so softly to begin with; the NYO brass showed particular subtlety all through, their restraint often working marvellous effects with the balances.

As with Marshall’s work, the brass serves up a chorale–like sequence, in this case with a distinct tinge of Messiaen. The piece then hurtles along, with some finely honed cellos dominating and then trumpets making pointed comment. All build to a terrific climax, with urgent, almost terrifying assertiveness from piccolos, a welter of woodwind and tuned percussion, until the piece suddenly stops — the moment of reckoning in space — yet feels as if it is somehow mysteriously carrying on: a kind of immortality.

By now we had had an ample taste of the quality of these performers. The strings were excellently together, the tuning immaculate, the ability to respond uniformly to dynamics, and shift urgently when coaxed from one mood to another, all magnificently impressive. The entire orchestra had a superb thrust and drive, the kind of spirited quality one associates with the country’s top adult orchestras. Perhaps 25 years ago one used to make allowances for the fact that these were young players. Now, there is no need: they match, and sometimes outshine, their elders.

There followed another piece of inspired programming by the NYO: one of the very rare live performances one can hear of Szymanowski’s Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony No.4). It is the work the Polish composer sketched late in life in an attempt to keep alive his performing on the platform when tuberculosis was beginning to play havoc with his health. Though the composer attempted to keep the solo part restrained, it is in fact a pretty full-blooded concerto, with a great deal of virtuosity which calls for an able soloist. Tamara Stefanovich brought colour and life and vivacity to the solo role, ably supported by the orchestra as a whole.

It is too unwieldy a task to elaborate on every detail of this work, which responded so well to the Symphony Hall acoustic. The start was mysterious and quizzical as it should be, with pizzicato cellos and basses, later a hinterland of flutes and clarinets, and the piano part characterised by the octaves and other parallellings that form part of its identity. The violins’ delayed entry was wonderfully robust, and they led in the falling-third patterns which become so essential to the argument. After a faultless surge from horns and trombones — I did not hear a single hint of a brass fluff all evening, which is a rare treat — the timpanist ushers in the cadenza, a great medley of material from the movement’s themes. Finely performed as that was, the orchestra’s scampering to a sudden, rather Ravel-like close, was yet more brilliant.

The delicate piano opening yields echoes of Szymanowski’s piano Masques, and even of the subtle delicacy that opens his Symphony No.3. The solo work here was notable; flute, then trumpet overlaid by solo violin. The recurrent motif here is rising thirds, in which violins and violas respond to the piano. The brass has an assertive passage, but it is the soloist who with butterfly flutterings catches the ear before timpani lead, by an attacca link, to the final Allegro whose eerie patterning reflects Szymanowski’s keenness for Tatra mountain folk music, and especially the falling sabala motif which supplies a haunting feeling, unique to this characteristic Polish tradition. Basses and cellos adjust the tonality before the violin has a similarly poignant solo, most exquisitely played. Once again the strings showed their mettle, and their marvellous stamina, before the full forces of woodwind and brass lay on, but unexpectedly all sail to a perfectly engineered sudden close.

The striking patterning that opens Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony bears a relation to the Dies Irae motto which, judiciously sliced, surfaces periodically in this work. Cello and basses, and then the appealing viola section, take it up. After sumptuous parallellings and imitations, the violins, lucid as ever, produced a luscious melody capped by a cor anglais solo. What followed, full of fervour, felt like a Tchaikovsky ballet, and this feeling of the dance continued. A repeating horn call — perfectly matched and stylishly mezzo piano — led to a series of gradual crescendos in which Wilson nursed his attentive players into phasing the expanding dynamics to wondrous effect. This was edge-of-seat stuff. Yet again, the brass proved its restraint, before expanding with strings into a truly massive climax. The violin fade that brought the movement to a close could not have been bettered.

The scherzo had all the crucial ingredients: Blustering, assertive brass, a kind of constant stop-start feel with intervening links for a (here superb) solo clarinettist and a remarkable, unexpected die-away. What impressed especially was a miraculous accelerando, perfectly honed by all sections, and — in between echoes of the Dies Irae — some magnificent brass bursts in which the NYO’s three tubas positively shone.

The slow movement is too well known to comment on at length: the crucial melody Rachmaninov awards (again) to the solo clarinet, while a link is provided by an articulate oboe. So tentative and gradual is the central build up, it assumed the feel of Sibelius at his most persuasive. The horns provided a link and the violins took on a new lead; but what struck one, not least, in this exquisitely managed performance of a movement of such intense beauty, was the brilliant rapid crescendo inaugurated by the violins towards the close, and the touching final comments from the violas.

The final movement gained equal impact thanks to the enduring quality of the NYO’s playing. The swellings and subsidings, all meticulously measured out, continued from earlier movements, the sensitive violas again supplied a plangent link, and the horn flutters — all eight of them beautifully synchronised — sounded like something out of Wagner. The movement, like the others, contains some tricky junctures calling for total attention and excellent conducting, which Wilson, nursing each section with intimacy and encouragement, and an unerring twinkle in his eye, dutifully supplied. In fact it was the links throughout the Rachmaninov, as in the Szymanowski, which showed off to great satisfaction the intelligence and attentiveness of these player en masse. The explosion of timpani and bass drum, and cymbals too, at the close, perfectly engineered, demonstrated with a final burst the magnificent effort put in by all their fellow players. Only occasionally one sensed the massed violin sound could be a little edgy, a mite domineering. But all in all, this was a concert to die for.

Roderic Dunnett

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