National Youth Orchestra of GB – Fantasias

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Julian Anderson
Fantasias [European premiere]
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 August, 2010
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Under-ambition is rarely something that could be levelled at the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and this concert (first in its summer tour) was typical in combining two very different French works from either end of the Romantic era with what could well prove to be a modern classic.

Premiered last November and two years in the making, Julian Anderson’s Fantasias was written for the Cleveland Orchestra – many of whose previous commissions similarly come into the ‘showpiece with substance’ category. Unlike most of his earlier orchestral compositions, there is no attempt at a seamless formal continuity – the work falling into five clearly demarcated movements that fulfil a pleasing formal and expressive symmetry, yet with an element of unpredictability never far below the surface and often to the fore as if in recognition of those flights of fancy inherent in the title.

Thus the opening movement unfolds as a mêlée of brass fanfares whose increasing elaboration never loses sight of their motivic simplicity, while its successor is the most fantasia-like for the capricious manner in which it moves through a sequence of ideas whose underlying unity only comes into focus at the close. Marked ‘Dolcissimo Notturno’, the central movement builds over several stages (taking in some of Anderson’s most iridescent harmonies) to a vast climax: the vortex, perhaps, to which the whole work has been headed. After a scherzo-like fourth movement has refocused momentum, the finale emerges as a single, overarching curve of energy whose crowning theme comes to the fore as the fanfares from the beginning spread uninhibitedly across the whole orchestra – though with the seemingly final chords making way for a teasing allusion back to the close of that first movement.

What is likely Anderson’s most visceral orchestral work to date also places a premium on unanimity and virtuosity of ensemble; qualities in which the NYO were certainly not lacking – thanks, in part, to the evident thoroughness with which Semyon Bychkov (having already done justice to a scarcely less taxing piece by Gunther Schuller at the Proms a fortnight ago) had prepared this performance. Fantasias is clearly a signal work among recent British orchestral music and, the size of the forces notwithstanding, it is to be hoped other orchestras will tackle it and with a comparable dedication.

Whether or not intended as a ‘way into’ the Anderson piece, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice still made for a scintillating curtain-raiser: its phases of increasingly manic activity securely grounded in the context of those passages of glacial stillness which were more than usually evocative in this performance.

After the interval, Symphonie fantastique could not help but draw these young musicians under its spell. Admittedly the performance took time to settle – thus a ‘Daydreams-Passions’ whose yearning introduction was just a little pallid and which proceeded in rather piecemeal fashion to a nonetheless fervid climax and resigned ending. If its underlying waltz rhythm was at times a touch foursquare, ‘A Ball’ was not lacking in suavity or a mounting sense of anticipation, but things audibly moved up a gear with ‘Scene in the country’ – Berlioz’s inimitable take on a Beethovenian landscape whose striving was unerringly thrown into relief by the anticipation of the opening and desolation at the close. After a glowering but not portentous ‘March to the Scaffold’, the NYO gave its all in a ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’ that pointed up the grotesque and the satanic before surging on to an orgiastic conclusion.

This was a fine showing for this most intrepid of youth orchestras, currently near the top of its collective game, and who had enough in reserve for an effervescent encore of ‘La tregenda’ from Puccini’s opera “Le villi”, incisively directed by Bychkov and dispatched with alacrity.

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