National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/John Wilson at Barbican Hall – Fantasia and Fugue, Respighi’s Pines of Rome & Elgar’s First Symphony

Bach, orch. Elgar
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor
Pini di Roma
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Alan Sanders

Reviewed: 4 January, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Members of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at Barbican Hall. Photograph: © 2014 Jason AldenA concert by the National Youth Orchestra is a major event. First of all, there is the spectacle of all those teenage musicians filing quietly on to make up the enormous ensemble – 163 players on this occasion. Then there is the music-making, which is almost guaranteed to be of an elevated standard and characterised by a rare degree of energy and commitment.

At once, at the beginning of Elgar’s orchestration of J. S. Bach’s organ work (BWV537), there was a magnificently sonorous sound generated – not at all heavy but warm and tonally flexible. And despite the large forces the unanimity of each section’s attack and the overall togetherness in the Fugue were hugely impressive. It was a brilliant beginning.

John Wilson conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at Barbican Hall. Photograph: © 2014 Jason AldenAnd it continued in Respighi’s showpiece. In the explosion of colour with which the work begins (‘The Pines of the Villa Borghese’) textures were once more beautifully clear, and the horns negotiated their tricky passages flawlessly and with total unanimity. At the end of this section John Wilson increased the tempo until it seemed there must be a breakdown. But this didn’t happen, and thus the sudden contrast with the calm of the second part (‘The Pines near a Catacomb’) seemed even more dramatic than usual. The bed of string tone was strikingly beautiful, and counterbalanced effectively by a solid bank of brass chant, which rose to a triumphant climax. Sometimes the recorded sound of a nightingale is introduced rather surreptitiously into the third movement, the pastoral ‘Pines of the Janiculum’, but here the tweets were very prominent and mixed well with the beautiful woodwind solos. Yes, it’s a vulgar effect, but it’s deliciously vulgar!

Then it was on to the final tramp of Roman Empire forces in ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’, muted at first but then growing into a huge rhythmic force. This was managed with great skill by Wilson, building the volume remorselessly until the final shattering chord.

The second half of the concert comprised Elgar’s First Symphony. Latter-day performances of his two Symphonies are sometimes bedevilled by slow speeds. It was reassuring to hear Wilson conduct the opening motto theme at a flowing tempo. And as the movement developed it was also good to find the conductor maintaining a strong sense of momentum and urgency, with the music ebbing and flowing like a seething sea-tide, as Elgar surely intended. In fact, before long it seemed there were many similarities between Wilson’s interpretation and the composer’s own 1930 recording – not only in its drive and flexibility, but in matters of phrase and tempo relationships. It is no slur on Wilson to suggest that he might have studied the composer’s recording, for this document is as valid a pointer to the work as are the indications in the score itself. If Wilson’s conducting of the Symphony sprang from study of the score only, then all credit to him for divining similar aspects in the work as the composer left us.

Thus there was a swift Scherzo, swifter even than Sir Edward, which put the NYO violins under some pressure, a beautifully warm and serene Adagio and, after its reflective beginning, a finale which unleashed tremendous, thrusting energy, leading to the triumphal re-statement of the opening motto. All in all, it was a magnificent performance and a memorable evening, for which all concerned deserve great credit. In this case, all concerned includes a range of tutors and not least the conductor Rebecca Miller, who was much involved in preparing the NYO.

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