After having given one of the best concerts of the year so far, in April at the Royal Festival Hall, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was in London again for another well-filled programme. This time the NYO was conducted by Edward Gardner who got the players to display a different range of qualities.
Iris ter Schiphorst’s Gravitational Waves is prompted by the recent detection of emissions set in motion over a billion years ago by the collision of two black holes. Schiphorst uses sounds from the scientific project heard through a sampler and reflected in the orchestra as well as a broadcast narrative. The soaring brass, scurrying strings and metallic percussion offer a sense of infinity. There is also a strong sense of visual performance, for the musicians don masks, sway in unison, make vocal interjections, and at the end raise their arms in a gesture of hope for the future. It proved an arresting piece to see and one imagines it was enjoyable to present.
Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra is a problematic work to bring off convincingly. The Nietzsche element can be unattractive although one should remember that Strauss subverts the text at the conclusion where nature not metaphysical inspiration has the last word and the piece ends with a question mark. Also, following the now-famous ‘2001’ opening Zarathustra is a free-form fantasia that can seem meandering.
Gardner and the NYO welded all of the sections into a convincing whole. The horizon-searching opening was delivered in ringing style, underpinned by the Royal Albert Hall organ at its most sonorous. The music for solo strings was played with feeling and the players made up for what they may have lacked in opulence with real ardour and intensity. There were thrusting horns in the “expression of joys and passions”. The Viennese waltz was elegant with a fine violin solo from Millie Ashton and the Midnight Bell episode was given a tremendous dark intensity and the eerily ambiguous close beautifully rendered. Overall, this was a well-paced account delivered with thrilling virtuosity.
Gustav Holst’s The Planets suits the Albert Hall and is tailor-made for the NYO. Gardner delivered a brisk reading, well-balanced and vividly detailed. ‘Mars’ was ominous and brutal with strings digging deep, belligerent brass and emphatic timpani. With ‘Venus’ Gardner emphasised Holst’s debt to French music, warm and luscious, then ‘Mercury’ was fleet, harps highlighted. ‘Jupiter’ was brisk and buoyant and the famous hymn-tune had nobility. ‘Saturn’ was given the ideal mixture of mystery and solemn processional whilst Uranus had jauntiness rising to demonic possession. The sheer strangeness of the superbly played woodwind solos in ‘Neptune’ raised links with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the disembodied harmonies blended inexorably with the mystic echo of the unseen women’s voices.
I’m agnostic about the addition of Colin Matthews’s Pluto the Renewer (dedicated to Imogen Holst) given the music, while adventurous, is out of harmony with the rest of the work, but it nevertheless rose to a splendid, focussed climax delivered with great conviction. At the close the impression is of 'Neptune' returning, tantalisingly so, with the come-again of the chorus.
Chandos was due to record Zarathustra and The Planets/Pluto following this Prom.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms