Guildhall Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall – Takuo Yuasa conducts Webern’s Passacaglia, Der Rosenkavalier and Prokofiev 5

Passacaglia, Op.1
Der Rosenkavalier – Suite
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Takuo Yuasa

Reviewed by: Amanda-Jane Doran

Reviewed: 17 March, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) in New York in 19182016 is the 125th-anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev’s birth. It has been announced that Valery Gergiev and fellow-enthusiasts are to restore Prokofiev’s dacha in Nikolina Gora, outside Moscow. Prokofiev is a magician. His music is simultaneously classical and modernist: complex, disturbing and lyrical. These qualities were displayed in the performance of the Fifth Symphony by students of the Guildhall School.

It was an ambitious programme, beginning with Webern’s Passacaglia, his first acknowledged work, completed after a four-year period of study with Schoenberg. A large, late-Romantic orchestra combines with a rigorous evaluation of an ancient form. The young musicians played with verve and commitment, the strings particularly fine. The shifts in tonality and unexpected metre were communicated with fitting intensity and energy; music as fresh and challenging as when it was written in 1908.

The Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, probably compiled by conductor Artur Rodziński (in 1945), followed. The opera itself was completed a mere three years after the Webern, yet occupies an entirely different soundworld. Again the strings dominated, now a little stridently, but with great support from the horns: exuberant and raucous in the opening. The playing was virtuosic if a touch too earnest for Richard Strauss’s most touching, sentimental and robustly vulgar characters to be reflected in all their familiar glory. However, the ‘Presentation of the Rose’ was beautifully detailed by celesta and woodwinds, and the waltzes were given with gusto, if just a little straitlaced.

Takuo YuasaPhotograph: www.patrickgarvey.comProkofiev’s Fifth Symphony has extraordinary range and complexity. The pastoral opening to the first movement is deceptive and an ominous gloom pervades leading to a frenetic climax with martial overtones. The Scherzo was given with stunning attack, Takuo Yuasa clear and decisive. As the Symphony progressed through the funereal Adagio towards the agitated, mechanical Finale the momentum was almost unbearable. Is this conveying the social realist dream of the modern Communist state or the irony and devastation of impersonal industrialisation and warfare?

The Fifth Symphony was a huge success when it was premiered in 1944, “the expression of the grandeur of the human spirit”, said the composer. Was the surface beauty of the music hiding a painful truth? Prokofiev had already been warned in 1926 and his music was pronounced counter-revolutionary. In spite of these dangerous and conflicting elements this Symphony was immediately recognised as a masterpiece. The musicians of the Guildhall School and Yuasa made a very good job reminding us of this fact.

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