Scythian Suite, Op.20
Totentanz – Paraphrase on the Dies Irae
Tai Murray (violin)
Stewart Goodyear (piano)
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 January, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
If any ensemble can be relied upon to start a New Year with a bang, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is the one to do so – and did just that with this unusually well-balanced programme which played to the strengths of both the 150-plus musicians and Kristjan Järvi.
Although it was written to shock and doubtless achieved that aim during its early years, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite (1915) has long since become a showpiece to rival similarly provocative ballets by Stravinsky and Bartók. As might be expected, Järvi launched fearlessly into the opening ‘Adoration’; here, as in ‘Dance of the Dark Spirits’ that followed, giving the NYO its collective head in relishing the garish sonorities and rhythmic ferocity. Elsewhere, the ruminative latter half of the ‘Adoration’ and throughout the ethereal ‘Night’, the textural and harmonic subtleties were rather glossed over and, though the opening stages of ‘Glorious Departure’ evinced just the right incisiveness, its concluding invocation to the sun proceeded rather hastily to a climax which was rowdy rather than ecstatic. There is more to this music than Järvi seemed able or prepared to admit.
From here to Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) is a fair step conceptually and, with the NYO scaled down in numbers, its extremes of introspection and anguish were well conveyed. It helped that Tai Murray was aware of the unusually close integration between soloist and orchestra in this work, dovetailing into the overall texture with evident dexterity while never shirking the rhetorical challenges of its latter half. The opening Andante was a little too reticent as it approached its climax, but the ensuing Allegretto persuasively mingled caprice and languor – not least as allusions to a Carinthian folk-song flit wistfully by. The accompanied cadenza at the centre of the Allegro was thoughtfully delivered, and if the movement’s crisis-ridden outer sections seemed less than ideally shocking in their impact, the transition to the Adagio had a sombre poetry that helped to make this finale – its Bach chorale a source of fulfilment as well as resignation – a fitting culmination. Murray could have brought greater rhythmic definition to its gradually unfolding variations, but her expressive poise in the transfigured final pages was rarely, if ever, in doubt – setting the seal on a notable interpretation ‘in the making’.
Not that there was anything even remotely provisional about Stewart Goodyear’s account of Liszt’s Totentanz (1849). One of numerous orchestral works that amply deserve revival in the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, its inventive play with the ‘Dies Irae’ chant – over what are informal paraphrases rather than variations as such – has a capricious brilliance unlikely to find favour in a post-war era that could only take the ‘Day of Wrath’ at face value. A pianist such as Goodyear is ideally placed to redress the balance as not only was he in command of the scintillating brilliance of the solo writing, but he was also alive to the degrees of irony which Liszt invests into his speculations, as well as the poetry and tenderness which take hold of the music during the lengthy cadenza passages (Goodyear, surely, is a future exponent of Busoni’s Piano Concerto). Once again, Järvi was admirable in his support – making the most of some of Liszt’s always-resourceful orchestration and ensuring the coruscating final bars were a plunge over the abyss worthy of Berlioz. It amounted to a remarkable performance of an underrated work and confirmed Goodyear as a pianist to reckon with.
Janáček’s Sinfonietta (1926) then proved something of an anticlimax. Not that the re-expanded NYO was unequal to the task, but ‘Fanfares’ was surprisingly earthbound and though ‘The Castle’ unfolded intently enough, its climax was a little too blatant and its hushed aftermath lacking mystery (though credit to the players for adjusting to a glaring wrong entry with such alacrity). Despite a rather tepid start, ‘The Queen’s Monastery’ built up to a powerful climax – the horns unfazed by the stratospheric ostinato writing – while ‘The Street’ made unusually capricious play with its pervasive trumpet tune (a pity about the absent brass at the close), but Järvi seemed unsure how best to pace the cumulative opening of ‘The Town Hall’; its sectional progress undermining the peroration, which could have done with more rhythmic propulsion rather than spurious extra percussion to cap the whole accordingly.
This was still an impressive showing from an NYO clearly intent on continuing where it left off from last summer’s concerts (and continuing in Leeds Town Hall on Saturday the 8th). April sees Vasily Petrenko at the helm of a double-bill of Judith Weir and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, for which this most intrepid of orchestras will no doubt be fully prepared.