National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the Barbican Centre – Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts Revueltas & Shostakovich, with Sheku Kanneh-Mason

La noche de los Mayas
Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat, Op.107
Symphony No.5 in D-minor, Op.47

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Carlos Miguel Prieto

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 9 April, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in rehearsal in the Barbican HallPhotograph: Nick RutterThe welcome inclusion of music by the cruelly short-lived composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) indicates the imagination of those involved in programming the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Carlos Miguel Prieto is also Mexican and The Night of the Mayas is fabulously over-the-top music, written for the 1939 film. This Suite was fashioned by José Limantour and premiered in 1961.

The NYO reacted superbly to the bright Technicolor of Revueltas’s score. The opening gong crash takes us to a cinematic space; and the huge percussion section (eleven players) has plenty to be occupied with in this extravaganza. Elements of ritualism link the music to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring while the infectious rhythms of ‘Noche de Jaranas’ (Night of Revelry) speak strongly of the composer’s geographical origins. ‘Noche de Yucatán’ (Night of the Yukatan) is unashamedly heart-on-sleeve and wonderfully done here, from the perfectly balanced clarinet opening to the true pianissimo on strings. One wonders if it is marked in the score for the horn section to stand at one of its moments in the spotlight, but it was in the spirit of the piece’s outgoing nature.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in rehearsal in the Barbican HallPhotograph: Nick RutterSheku Kanneh-Mason won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 with this Concerto and this Hall. Playing on an Amati cello (circa 1610), Kanneh-Mason gave an astonishingly assured performance. His partner-in-crime in the all-important horn part was the excellent Jacob Dean. The strength of Kanneh-Mason’s approach was that it was so nuanced; this, plus his technical command, led to a memorable account. The second-movement Moderato was beautifully held-breath, the cello’s high harmonics impeccable and the NYO strings the perfect whispered bed of sound. The cadenza was eloquent in the extreme (with impeccable left-hand pizzicato) and the Finale began with an incredibly powerful contribution from the NYO (wonderful woodwind shrieks). For an encore was Kanneh-Mason’s poignant arrangement of a Jewish folksong ‘Erev na shoshashim’, a melody also taken up by Miriam Makeba, Nana Mouskouri and Harry Belafonte.

In Shostakovich’s Fifth, the first-violin line in the opening Moderato was perfectly judged. Oboe contributions (Helena Mackie) were terrific too, although tuttis at higher dynamic levels were rather bass-light and glaring, however. The duet for horn (now Olivia Gandee) and flute (Stefan Cunningham) was well-managed, but it was the leader Leora Cohen that really impressed. The relentless second movement was a terrific Soviet romp; and, in the slow movement, those gripping pianissimos paid huge dividends, as did the perfectly together string lines. Brass was to the fore in the rampant march of the Finale, Prieto pacing the ending well. Following a little speech from the conductor – referring to the NYO as a “miracle” and pointing out the Mexican Ambassador in the audience – was an unbuttoned account of José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango. The NYO’s brilliance continues to shine.

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