Messiaen
Les offrandes oubliƩes
Berlioz
Harold in Italy, Op.16
Prokofiev
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Lawrence Power (viola)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Yan Pascal Tortelier
The annual visit to the Proms by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is invariably a highlight of the season. It is heartening to be re-assured that there is a goodly number of young orchestral players working together to achieve a high standard, and responding to the challenges inherent in playing demanding works.
And so it proved on this occasion, although one could not help noticing the apparent absence of non-Caucasian players. At least from my seat, it would appear that a cross-section of our multi-cultural society is currently not being represented in the NYO. It would be interesting to learn what proportion of players come from state and independent schools. Perhaps the policy of not providing free instrumental lessons to pupils who want them – as is definitely the case in certain parts of the country – is starting to manifest itself.
These issues aside, the positive features of the orchestra were clear – confident playing, collectively and individually, and a palpable sense of enthusiasm, which were altogether inspiring. As to the rendering of these particular works, under the direction of Yan Pascal Tortelier, there were some reservations, which may perhaps be put into perspective given the players’ overall high standard of achievement.
Messiaen’s early triptych – his first substantial orchestral work – is not an easy piece to bring off; the notion of programming Les offrandes oubliĆ©es was both courageous and commendable. As ever with Messiaen, religious (specifically, Catholic) imagery is the starting point for this three-part meditation on Christ’s agony on the cross, the sins of humanity and the sacrament of communion. Ethereal string chords characterise the opening and concluding sections, and no allowances needed to be made for any inexperience of this repertoire by the young players. The difficult chords were securely played, and only the rather note-by-note approach to the phrases was a drawback. Tortelier could have shaped this meditative music more caressingly and expressively. The central ’vif’ section, much more aggressive in character, was convincing in its delivery of tricky rhythms, with the brass cutting through the textures most effectively. If occasionally the overall impression was rather blurred, this may well have been due to the inevitable consequences of the NYO having several wind and brass players to a single part. Instrumental lines were up to eight in number, and whilst this aided visceral impact, it sometimes prevented total clarity and incisiveness.
In Lawrence Power’s rendition of the solo viola part, Berlioz’s Harold was a more than usually dreamy figure. On its own terms this was beautiful playing if ultimately lacking real personality. There are, of course, limitations to the part itself, but a more imaginative and dynamic approach is possible. Not that there weren’t some lovely moments – the echoed repeat of Harold’s main theme (accompanied by a wonderfully sensitive harpist) was poetry itself. Elsewhere, this Harold was too self-effacing a personage for Berlioz’s vivid imagination.
In fact, the reading as a whole felt alarmingly ’comfortable’, with Berlioz in serious danger of sounding like a ’normal’ composer. Familiarity with his works should not make us forget their daring or maverick character. There seemed to be some uncertainty of ensemble right at the start, but following the effective presentation of the theme, the ’Allegro’ bustled along purposefully if somehow refusing to take wing. The ’March of the Pilgrims’ was more like a brisk walk – a more spacious tempo would have helped – but the horns and harps placed their bell imitations perfectly. The viola section was alive to the rhythmic nuances of the ’Serenade’ and one admired the wind soloists – the piping of the piccolo and the cor anglais’s expressive qualities were pointedly contrasted. In the final ’Brigand’s Orgy’, there was once again a need for greater abandon. In spite of Tortelier’s foot-stamping and wild gesticulation, and impressive as the brazen brass was, the bacchanalian quality of Berlioz’s inspiration was missing.
Prokofiev’s end-of-the-war symphony was here presented as a big, bold – and sometimes brash – conception. There was full-throated playing – the strings’ rich tone, everyone bowing to the full – provided a firm foundation. Once past the stately opening, the more pointed figures of the first movement, which feature so heavily in this work, were given with a goodly sense of ’marcato’. The coda was massively powerful, with noteworthy percussion contributions (an outstanding section throughout the concert). The fleet-footed Scherzo had a good feeling of forward propulsion – ’no lingering’ is a sign that needs to be at the forefront of the conductor’s mind throughout this symphony – and the pert woodwind had all the requisite peppery qualities. Strings were vigorously articulate and athletic; if the silky-sheen quality needed in the Trio rather eluded them, this was not through want of trying. (Incidentally, the young man playing the important piano part should have been identified – he was excellent.)
The weightier matters of the slow movement were well projected – strings enjoyed the lush Tchaikovskian melodic writing, brass was not without threat, and the march-like climax was properly arresting. However, quieter playing where the composer indicates would have afforded greater contrast. The finale had a sense of utter conviction, from the rather poignant reminiscences of earlier themes (making Prokofiev and Berlioz unlikely bedfellows – Berlioz similarly recalls previously heard material in the finale of Harold) to the quite terrifying final few bars. The low trumpets’ ’warning’ just before the end suddenly made one aware that this is potentially as ambiguous a symphony as any by Prokofiev’s compatriot Shostakovich. What are stark alerts doing in a ’celebration’ symphony written, as the composer noted, with the “greatness of the human spirit” in mind? This performance made us think about such things, and the persuasiveness of the totally committed playing was utterly riveting.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 13 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

 

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