United Kingdom BBC PROM 28 – Mussorgsky, Benjamin, Ravel, Ligeti, Debussy: Tamara Stefanovich (piano), National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain / George Benjamin (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London 5.8.2018. (CS)
Mussorgsky – A Night on the Bare Mountain (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov)
Benjamin – Dance Figures
Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Ligeti – Lontano
Debussy – La mer
Three tubas, five bassoons and two contras, nine desks of violas, four harps … even though the 2018 Proms season has included a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, excluding choral complements the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain must surely be a safe bet to win the prize for the greatest number of orchestral musicians on the Royal Albert Hall stage during this year’s festival.
Of course, the full collective of 164 weren’t all playing all of the time – and the programme was well-compiled by conductor George Benjamin to allow for refinement as well as flamboyance – but the massed forces did produce a wonderfully dynamic, richly coloured and technically polished sound-scape. There were occasional problems with balance, and the strings seemed to suffer most here, particularly as Benjamin arranged his violin sections antiphonally which rather buried the cello section in the midst and, I felt, reduced their presence at times – though the ten double basses were resplendent, tiered stage-left (with their spikes resting on the step below, allowing them, for once, to swap high stools for normal chairs).
Rimsky-Korsakov’s skill as an orchestrator ensured that the concert got off to a dynamic start, as the NYO whirled and thundered through the banshee shrieks and threatening appearance of the spirits of darkness which open A Night on the Bare Mountain, Rimsky’s orchestration of an episode from Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Sorochintsy Fair. The woodwind sneered lithely and eerily in the witches’ dance and the strings subsequently matched them for rhythmic tightness while horns added some glowing punch. Benjamin ratcheted things up in anticipation of the arrival of the god Chornobog and the dramatic tension never flagged. How exciting it must have been to be playing in the middle of this beautiful wildness. The distant village bells brought quietness but not calm, the unceasingly dull thud of the double bass tread injecting a darker note, before the lucidity of the solos by clarinet and flute diffused the shadows and the rays of harp-light shone through the dawn. This was beautifully fresh and engaging musical mood- and picture-painting.
After the relentless energy and colour of the Sabbath rituals, Benjamin’s own Dance Figures presented both a complement and a contrast. The ‘nine choreographic sketches for orchestra’ were conceived as a ballet, but the work was first heard in concert form, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim in May 2005, and it was a year later that it received its first ballet production, at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels in May 2006. The short movements, which largely run together segue, are as diverse in colour and as evocative as Rimsky-Korsakov’s score, but textures – though not form or language – are simpler, airier, and here they seemed to look ahead to the Debussy that we would hear in the second half of the concert. The NYO persuasively crafted Benjamin’s meticulously etched timbres with precision and confidence – the percussion section deserves especial praise – communicating both the delicacy and the danger that the composer conjures.
After some furniture-moving, the departure of a sizeable proportion of the instrumentalists and the arrival of a grand piano, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand followed, with Tamara Stefanovich as the piano soloist. After such dynamic heights, here the energy and focus flagged a little. The orchestral opening evoked the haze of a jazz club while the full orchestral statements retained an edge to their warm bloom. But, Stefanovich struggled to create variety of mood and – though the RAH acoustic can be deceptive – seemed to rely overly on the pedal to elide the registers, creating some blurriness and loss of tonal focus. Benjamin and the NYO worked hard to give stature and shape to the orchestral episodes, while Stefanovich was most expressive in the quieter, more lyrical passages where she found a more lucid quality, though I still missed that magical dust of ‘sparkle’.
The Allegro scherzo was pithy and bitter-sweet: the sultry, nasal bassoon solo, against ultra-dry viola and cello spiccato, was terrifically confident and suave, and Benjamin kept a tight hand on the reins so that the music felt – as it should – that it might rebelliously burst out from within. A racing accelerando followed by a huge intake of breath preceded the blazing restatement of the grandiose main theme. From where I was seated in the Hall, the upper-most song-line of the piano cadenza did not rise sufficiently above the tumult below, though I suspect that BBC Radio 3 listeners fared better, once the engineers had done their job, but the NYO stormed triumphantly through the closing cadential flourishes. Stefanovich offered a tribute to Oliver Knussen as her encore: the composer’s Prayer Bell Sketch.
The post-interval fare showed the NYO at their very best. At their summer residential school, Benjamin has clearly inspired them to understand and relish the gradual transformations of colour and concentration of texture in György Ligeti’s Lontano (1967), and the young players articulated these with care and refinement, from the initial tonal pulsations and crystalline string harmonics, on through the microscopically close counterpoint which was intense, precise and distinct no matter how dense the sound mass – and just how did the seven trombones and three tubas growl that quietly? Melodic elements were sharply defined against the harmonic fluctuations with leader Patrick Bevan making a notably accomplished contribution.
If in Lontano we seemed to be journeying through alternating darkness and light, water and air, then the fluctuations of movement and light in Debussy’s La Mer, which completed the programme, were similarly persuasive and immersive. The waters were mysteriously seductive in the early-morning mists of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’: the up-surges from the deep depths of the rolling timpani and tremolando lower strings were quickly quelled, and individual melodic fragments formed splashes of illumination on the shimmering surface, as Benjamin created a growing sense of animation and power. Here the woodwind and brass tripling and quadrupling gave the sea-scape finely wrought definition. The waters beckoned, yearned, were playful, then sombre. However gentle the water’s stirrings, Benjamin’s intense attentiveness to dynamic variation and detail ensured that menace never felt far away, and the latent power of the oceans was marvellously conveyed in the glowing swells of the full orchestra.
The freedom and flexibility in ‘Jeux de vagues’ felt mischievous and impulsive, even breathless at times, and when the harp’s calming undulating motif brought the waters rest at the close of the movement it was a welcome moment of stillness. But, it was an illusory peace, one immediately dispelled by the approaching storms of ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’. Not surprisingly, the vast orchestral forces delivered a tempest and veritable tidal waves, but Benjamin was judicious with the climaxes and it was the unceasing variation of motif and colour which was most compelling. The stand-out solo contributions were too numerous to mention, but together the NYO reminded us of the sheer joy that music and music-making can bring.