Sunday 8 August 2010

Prom 29: NYO/Bychkov - Dukas, Anderson, and Berlioz, 7 August 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Dukas – L’apprenti sorcier
Julian Anderson – Fantasias
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, op.14

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

I have never heard a mediocre, let alone poor, performance from the National Youth Orchestra; this Prom would be no exception. Under Semyon Bychkov, of whom we have recently, welcomely, been hearing rather more in this country, these young musicians played their hearts out, in a programme of three orchestral showpieces, which, in two cases out of three, where shown to be much more than showpieces. First was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. From the opening bars, it was imbued with a magic that made it sound as if minted anew. Ravel came to mind – but then, it should really be the other way around. Sharpness of attack and, on occasion, proto-impressionist haze worked together to provide a sharply characterised account. What a joy it was to hear such a large orchestra too, one that worked with the Royal Albert Hall, rather than performing as usual and leaving the listener to pretend that he were hearing with other ears. Seven trombones, here and elsewhere, did the trick wonderfully, likewise the depth and gloss – not an ugly word, whatever Karajan-deniers might tell you – of strings.

Next came the London premiere of Julian Anderson’s Fantasias (2007-9), written for the Cleveland Orchestra. I cannot imagine that even that mighty orchestra would have given a better account than the NYO did. Whether it was worth the effort is another matter. If one wanted a piece of modern, albeit relatively conservative, orchestration to study, one could do worse, but again and again I kept asking what lay behind the orchestration; if one wanted ‘orchestra without music’, someone else, already mentioned, did it rather better. The first of five ‘fantasias’ opens arrestingly, for brass alone, and the NYO brass is spectacular indeed. Anderson describes it as ‘very polyphonic’: a somewhat odd qualifier, ‘very’, but never mind. The debt to Stravinsky is obvious from the word go, but the Russian master’s economy of means seems to elude Anderson. Doubtless taxing and enjoyable to play, this is somewhat prolix. Wonder of wonders, though, and this would be maintained throughout the evening: no applause between movements. The second fantasia seems most concerned with orchestral colour. String pizzicato playing was beyond reproach, likewise general orchestral keenness of response. However, the outstanding nature of the percussion playing only served to highlight the watered-down proximity to writing in Boulez’s Notation II: superficially similar, but without the distinction of material and transformation. The NYO’s depth of string tone served the third piece well; so did the superlative flute-playing of Joshua Batty, whom I admired in the NYO’s Debussy a little while ago. Messiaenesque writing hinted both at chorale and birdsong. I later read that this ‘nocturne … was partly suggested by the image of a rainforest and its acoustic’. That seemed merely to consist in a cultural imperialism that took a few sounds and ‘ethnic’ rhythms as emblematic of a culture that in no way seemed truly to inform the music. Occidentalism, perhaps? There was a glittering climax in performance to the third part of this fantasia, again wonderfully performed, before subsiding into more birdsong and vaguely ‘jungle’-like noises, but to what end? The fourth fantasia, scherzo-like, brings more of the same, only sped up. (Be grateful for small mercies!) Mid-period Stravinskian syncopation was dealt with very well by the performers. Co-leader, Rosemary Hinton performed her solo exquisitely. The final fantasia once again brought water-down reminiscences of that Boulez Notation, along with faint reminders of Janáček, without the individuality. It outstayed its welcome, like much of the rest, but gave the NYO players ample opportunity to display their virtuosity.

With the Symphonie fantastique we returned, of course, to compositional mastery. For once, moreover we had an orchestra a little closer to the size Berlioz desired: not quite there, of course, but closer than most – and it told. (Note a typical hypocrisy – inconsistency, if we are to be charitable – on the part of the authenticke brigade here.) The opening of the first movement, like that of the Dukas, brought sonorous magic – this despite the insistent presence of someone apparently in advanced stages of consumption, who seemed to infect others with terrifying rapidity. The main tempo of the first movement proper, once past the introduction, sounded on the fast side, but Bychkov proved eminently flexible, imparting that all-important nervous energy to Berlioz’s vision. This Berlioz was perhaps more excitable than the more Classical conception of Sir Colin Davis, but this standpoint is perfectly valid in its Romanticism. An especially beautiful oboe solo (Julian Scott) should be noted. Le bal went with a swing – and an equally ravishing flute solo, again from Joshua Batty. A mediocre performance of the Scène aux champs will inevitably lead one’s mind to wander: no such problem here, for I was gripped from beginning to end. Bychkov showed a fine command of line, melodic and harmonic, whilst his players excelled themselves. A suave melody from the cello section was worthy of especial mention, likewise a splendid clarinet solo from Oliver Pashley. Indeed, all the woodwind players were truly excellent. The climax was finely shaped, not overdone, the movement as a whole leisurely, but always moving. Character and discipline vitally informed the march to the scaffold, the NYO brass simply magnificent: quality and quantity, just as Berlioz wished. A mobile telephone disrupted the early bars of the finale, but this proved a welcome opportunity for the brass to obliterate this most unwelcome ‘interactivity’ – as our modish commentators would have it. There was some splendidly characterised woodwind playing: grotesque in the best way, as was the added heft of the string section, which also served to underline the oft-overlooked symphonic stature of Berlioz’s achievement. Off-stage bells and their echo were duly credible, indeed atmospheric , whilst the final brass Dies irae proved truly resplendent, surrounded by diabolical orchestral madness. The rollicking conclusion provided a fitting climax to a fine concert.