Scythian Suite, Op.20
Totentanz – Paraphrase on the Dies Irae
Tai Murray (violin)
Stewart Goodyear (piano)
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes
Reviewed: 5 January, 2011
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
They called it Britain’s Biggest Orchestra. If the Hallé has been performing down the road at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, it’s quite likely that the Liverpool sound would have drowned it out, for this gigantic ensemble filled the entire Phil stage – choir stalls and all – with barely the space to insert a cigarette paper between players. And what a sound! It was big. It was positive. There was a superb confidence about these young musicians – all performing with a vivacity which many of our professional ensembles would do well to emulate. It was all the more inspiring since this orchestra had, barely days ago, simply not existed.
The NYO came to Liverpool at the start of its winter tour, prior to performances in the Barbican Hall in London on Friday and at the Town Hall in Leeds on Saturday. The programme selected a series of pieces which would test the skills of the players while providing audiences with some works that are not top of the list of popular performances. Most notable was a sublime performance of the rather harrowing Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, the most approachable of the three members of the Second Viennese School, Berg’s use of melody is always intriguing and his harmonic language is subtly challenging. Kristjan Järvi managed a fine-line balance between drama and pathos while allowed Tai Murray to give full expression to one of the most challenging violin concertos in the repertoire. Murray gave an assured, mature performance of the work, especially at that high point when the violin’s high harmonics are pitted against pizzicato. From the orchestra there were some particularly fine woodwind sounds. The quotation from Bach’s chorale ‘Es ist genug’ (It is enough) closed this work sublimely quietly, though, just now and again, the huge orchestra did rather overwhelm the soloist.
The rest of the concert was not given to quiet repose. Stewart Goodyear, who has performed with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, as well as the BBC Scottish and Bournemouth orchestras, gave a searing account of Liszt’s Totentanz. He was absolutely on fire, the keyboard almost melting under his fingers. And his enthusiasm spread to the orchestra.
The NYO had opened on a lively note, with Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, which provoked controversy at its first performance. Notable here was the discipline of the strings: always absolutely spot-on the notes, not something easily achieved with so many players. It was a dramatic, even pompous, performance.
An energetic account of Janáček’s Sinfonietta closed the evening, even if the scene in ‘The Queen’s Monastery’ was a little muted. But that didn’t last for long and ‘The Town Hall’ had the NYO blazing.