National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/John Wilson at Barbican Hall – Guide to Strange Places, Four Sea Interludes, The Planets

Guide to Strange Places
Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, Op.32

CBSO Youth Chorus [The Planets – Neptune]

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 6 January, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

John Wilson. Photograph: www.johnwilsonorchestra.comIt is doubtless a truism, but one worth repeating, that the technical and musical standards consistently reached and displayed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain are of the very highest. One does not invariably encounter from hard-bitten professionals such deep application to and genuine love of music as the teenagers who make up the NYO’s personnel possess – the more so when they are inspired, as they undoubtedly were on this occasion, by a conductor whose superb technique and commitment to the music and ability to convey that to the players are wholly admirable.

Thus it was that the three works comprising this remarkable programme received performances which could hardly have been improved upon. The ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes, although extracted from a score originally written for a much smaller ‘opera’ orchestra, certainly benefits from large forces – for this concert, 165 players including 12 double basses, 18 cellos, four harps, and the rest in proportion – but the individual movements pose very difficult challenges, technically, for whichever orchestra tackles them. Suffice it to say that this was a simply magnificent account, moving and thrilling by turns, immaculate in intonation (38 violins, firsts and seconds in unison, in the opening bars of ‘Dawn’, high above the stave and dead in tune – wondrous to hear) full of musical character throughout: ‘Moonlight’ (just the one harp here) was richly expressive from the lower strings, and the concluding ‘Storm’ was a veritable tsunami of overwhelming sound.

Holst’s The Planets is another very demanding score, covering an even wider range of expression than the Britten and certainly intended for larger orchestral forces (even if Holst did not quite envisage this many players). It is a score to which one may readily imagine these gifted young musicians would respond with alacrity, and it was performed throughout with considerable power and finesse (especially, in this instance, during that fearsomely difficult pianissimo e staccato passage for strings in ‘Mercury’ at Wilson’s fleet and deftly paced tempo). Only on the merest of momentary occasions in ‘Uranus’ did the occasional glitch occur; but in truth this was a consistently great performance, the youthfulness of the players notwithstanding.

John Adams’s Guide to Strange Places was the curiosity, in more ways than one: this 23-minute (or so) score dates from 2001 (co-commissioned by the BBC), but its musical content stems from 90 years before. A work of deep unoriginality, it seemed that almost all of what we heard was a too-lengthy (by far) undigested series of reminiscences of tricks from Stravinsky’s three early ballets – a more accurate title would seem to be ‘Son of Petrushka and The Rite’ – devoid of genuine musical interest and prompting the thought that the composer should spend less time dreaming up catchy titles and devote more time to creating catchy tunes for his players and audiences, of which, in this work, there are none to be heard.

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