National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Ilan Volkov at Royal Festival Hall – Percy Grainger’s The Warriors, Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Percy Grainger
The Warriors – Music to an Imaginary Ballet
Unsuk Chin
Mannequin – Tableaux vivants for orchestra [co-commissioned by Southbank Centre, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: London premiere]
Concerto for Orchestra

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 April, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Percy Grainger (centre), with Edvard Grieg (left), Nina Grieg & Julius Röntgen, at Troldhaugen, July 1907For the third time of asking in three days – previously at The Sage Gateshead and then at Victoria Hall, Hanley – the Spring contingent of the National Youth Orchestra had a high old time at the Royal Festival Hall with this adventurous programme.

First up (if not at Hanley, where it was Bach/Elgar, the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor) was The Warriors by Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961), Australian-born, German-trained, London-based and America-domiciled. This music for an “imaginary ballet” is scored for an extravagant orchestra, an ideal match for the typically outsize NYO, although the three pianos are Grainger’s (with those performing on them sometimes obliged to offer more than fingers on keys!), so too his requirement for Gamelan-imitating “tuneful percussion” (ten players).

The Warriors (completed in this version in 1916), at less than twenty minutes compact in length only, is exuberant and brims with familiar Grainger harmonic nooks (Handel in the Strand…) while being dense and glittering. It’s a wacky, witty and quick-change score conjuring allusions and suggestions, requiring a second conductor (the demands of the contemporaneous Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives come to mind) for the off-stage brass (well-managed here, its contribution deliberately seeming to belong to a different work, and I don’t mean Mahler 2) and such uncommonness as a bass oboe, its solo most sensitively shaped. The Warriors (nothing to do with the then raging First World War, said Grainger, a conscientious objector) reaches an ecstatic peroration and a contrapuntally complex pay-off decorated by bells and gong.

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain rehearse on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, London, 2015Photograph: NYOGB FacebookI assume the edition prepared in 1997 by Alessandro Servadei – correcting many errors – was used; it all came over as pristine. The NYO played this cosmopolitan and rare opus with panache, commitment and enjoyment, Ilan Volkov a master of ensuring precision and clarity. When the next concert Warriors will occur is anyone’s guess, but at least there are recordings by John Eliot Gardiner, Richard Hickox, Simon Rattle and Geoffrey Simon.

There followed an interval longer than the Grainger took to perform: a hefty re-organisation of the stage the reason. Strangely, the antiphonal violins in the Grainger now sat as one and the left-positioned double basses moved to the right to accommodate four harps.

As it turned out, some breathing space was needed before Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin (also with unchartered choreography in mind), given its world premiere two evenings previously. Typical of this composer the soundworld is often beguiling and, like the Grainger, the mood-changes are many in music inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (1816). The first movement, ‘Music Box – Fever Dream’, proved the best in its eerie conjuring and volatile disorientation to something crazy. The remaining three sections tend to favour gesture, colour and atmosphere above substance and felt too samey, the ears only pricking up in ‘Dance of the Clockwork Girl’ when something close to Boulez’s Notation No.2 (one of his glorious re-imaginings for large orchestra of these early piano pieces) suggested itself, no doubt coincidentally. However brilliantly sounded by Chin and confidently played by a dedicated NYO, there is only so much trombone-glissando, bowed cymbals and thunder sheet one can take, even over a mere twenty minutes, although the contrabassoon’s croaky envoi was novel.

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 2015Photograph: © Jason AldenBartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943, rather later than suggested in the programme) – more a five-movement symphony-like work of sustained musical argument shared between solos and particular instrumental groupings – found the NYO continuing to be secure and sensitive, the odd blooper of little consequence in relation to the talent on display. For all his command, and the NYO’s responsiveness, one can quibble some of Volkov’s interpretation – a lack of playfulness in ‘Game of the Couples’ and the ribald central part (Bartók parodying Shostakovich – or is it Lehár’s Merry Widow? – depends what you read) of ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’ went for very little at this breezy pace. However exhilarating the ‘Finale’, some of its more reflective moments were harried and inelegantly turned, although the close was uplifting and, best, the first movement was unusually well unified and the third-movement ‘Elegy’ was numbed and railing, bitingly intense and with the closing pages serenely accepting.

Of the three works played here, the Bartók is the most economic in its scoring, yet the NYO strings were especially refulgent set against the lucidity of the woodwinds and brass, a true balance maintained in playing that went beyond the expert tutelage and extensive rehearsal afforded the youngsters over ten days.

An encore, Green Bushes (Passacaglia on an English Folksong), returned us to Grainger, but for far too long a piece, the tune of the title not standing up to this amount of repetition. However ingenious on Grainger’s part and however attentively played, after the vibrant Bartók, if anything extra was needed something quiet and reflective would have been much more welcome. But, hats off to a sterling NYO effort and the non-hackneyed line-up.

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