National Youth Orchestra Andrew Litton

Der fliegende Holländer – Overture
Eine alpensinfonie, Op.64

Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Andrew Litton

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 April, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

National Youth Orchestra concerts are invariably causes for celebration – occasions when the words ’youth’ and ’culture’ can, for once, be meaningfully combined. Whatever their individual non-musical interests, it’s good to know that these teenagers are not souls lost to the vacuous and uncouth ’entertainment’ that now discredits too much of the airwaves. Nor are they solely ’living’ in a hermetically sealed world of mobile-phone and computer-game banality. The current NYO members know about commitment to a good cause and that musical sound is produced by physical and mental endeavour and sensorial regard – and not soullessly through a box of electronic tricks. The only plugged-in item here was the organ in the Strauss, rather a good-sounding example of the breed too, and the concert itself focussed on human issues – the chosen music linked by torments, personal apprehension, and communion with nature.

That said, Wagner’s sea captain sentenced to ride the waves forever (ultimately repealed) was here in less choppy waters than usual – Andrew Litton navigated a cosy drive rather than conjuring the elements and baring the tormented psyche. But it was a hierarchically well-balanced reading, the outsize wind and brass forces (an NYO trademark), the odd blip aside, not outdoing the strings; the woodwinds played with eloquence and the strings themselves were wonderfully sonorous and unanimous.

Quite rightly the number of players was reduced (if remaining relatively large) for the intimate world of Mahler’s songs – of love and death and other weighty matters. This was a curiously objective reading: Charlotte Hellekant’s clarity of utterance and easeful singing was one thing, but her emotional understatement, welcome if angst-free Mahler is desirable, also lacked the musical perception of a Christa Ludwig or the intense identification of a Janet Baker (not the only ways of course). Hellekant was at times a little loud (or the orchestra too discreet), and while there was no doubting the sensitivity from all concerned, it was a little too lightly worn; the cor anglais solo in “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” lingers in the mind.

Strauss’s Alpine Symphony can be more dangerous and philosophical than Litton prepared it here; and for all that it can be a ’showpiece’, Strauss’s extravagance is no hindrance to an awe-inspired commentary on ambition and awareness. This performance found the NYO negotiating Strauss’s demands with remarkable assurance (superb string playing again, and poised woodwinds). If the trumpets at stratospheric pitches were a little daunted, this was, overall, an engrossing rendition on its own terms; in particular those weird and wonderful moments of interior enchantment were here blended and sounded quite magically. In sum, a notable achievement, Litton eschewing bombast and indulgence and emphasising symphonic aspiration above travelogue association – rightly so. Under Litton’s genial and pragmatic direction, the current NYO members shone. For anyone concerned with standards, this was an encouraging evening.

  • Concert repeated at St David’s Hall, Cardiff on 16 April and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3
  • NYO

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