National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Nicholas Collon at Barbican Hall – Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet & Prokofiev 5 – Tai Murray plays Korngold’s Violin Concerto

Hamlet – Fantasy Overture, Op.67
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Tai Murray (violin)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Nicholas Collon

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 3 January, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 2015Photograph: © Jason AldenConcerts by The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain are always worth attending, for they are invariably performed by a full-sized ensemble (such as may have been more often heard one hundred or so years ago, but which is all-too-rare these days), made up of gifted and enthusiastic young players keen to demonstrate the results of their study – frequently of music they had not previously encountered.

This particular programme looked an absolute winner, being made up of three masterly compositions. But an orchestra of this vast complement – ten horns, twelve double basses (total string-strength eighty-eight), three tubas in unison, four harps, and so on – needs careful handling if tutti sections are not to degenerate into overpowering stretches of sheer noise. Nicholas Collon was not invariably successful with regard to overcoming such problems of balance and control of dynamics in this Hall.

Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture (one of three works he composed on a Shakespearean subject) is much less well-known than Romeo and Juliet (The Tempest is even less familiar) but does not deserve its relative neglect, and it was an intelligent piece of planning to open the concert, and this commemorative ‘Shakespeare 400’ year, with this work.

The Hamlet Overture suits a large orchestra, and there is no doubt that this was an account of some stature. Collon had the music’s measure of this score, underpinned by thrilling timpani-playing and manifest concentration from every member of the quite remarkable NYO.

Tai MurrayPhotograph: © Marco BorggreveErich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto has had a chequered career, particularly in the UK, when – almost 60 years ago now – the superb Heifetz recording was dismissed by most critics (but not for the quality of performance). The work still divides opinion, but in leading the composer’s rehabilitation during the past several decades, there is no denying Korngold’s consistency and originality of utterance, his mastery of structure and of orchestration, and his melodic gift – a combination which brought forth his concert masterpiece, a score in which he solved, for the first time in musical history, a problem which had bedevilled composers for a century and more.

In terms of balance the NYO was much reduced in numbers, and the talented Tai Murray delivered a reading of the solo part which did the work justice. One might have wished for a more consistent underlying pulse in all three movements, a pulse through which Korngold makes each of the music’s expressive points coherently and organically, and her account of the first-movement cadenza suggested that greater familiarity with the work could well reveal even more of the Concerto’s many subtleties. But there could be no denying Murray’s love for, and commitment to, the music, in which its essentially Viennese sunny disposition is its most endearing feature. Collon proved a reliable partner, the orchestra participating fully.

Prokofiev’s mighty Fifth Symphony saw the full NYO return. This superb piece is less-often heard these days – perhaps the concurrent rise in Shostakovich’s popularity has tended to overshadow his contemporary. In the main, this was a worthy account of a score which poses several interpretative problems – not least in making the varied changes of tempo follow in a genuinely symphonic manner, for Prokofiev’s melodic genius can often trap the unwary into failing to cohere the underlying organic structure.

Nicholas CollonPhotograph: Jim HinsonIn this, Prokofiev is more subtle than either Shostakovich or Miaskovsky, and whilst, in the main, Collon’s grasp of the Symphony was broadly sympathetic, several deeper aspects went unaddressed. For example, the astounding emergence of the great theme in the slow movement which returns in the Finale to crown the Symphony passed by as just another event, and even with eighteen cellos it did not make anything like the impact it should have done, so that in the final movement its true nature and importance passed by as if being encountered en route. Nor was ensemble in either the Scherzo or Finale as one might have wished, yet the depth and richness of much of the stylish and steadfast playing throughout were admirable, and must have been revelatory for some of the younger members of the audience, who listened throughout with rapt attention, putting some of the older concert-goers to shame.

However, a further point has to be attended: any Youth Orchestra, and the NYO is surely the one to which all others aspire, is made up – as in this instance – of gifted musicians between the ages of 14 and 19. They come together during school holidays for a concentrated period of study and preparation. So much can be learned and absorbed during these detailed rehearsal periods dependent on the conductor, and it is in the best interests of these young players to learn from the most experienced of musicians, whose knowledge and understanding of the repertoire is predicated upon their greater wisdom – the flair of these young players demands nothing less. Such musicianship also demands the best from the support staff, and it was disappointing to read the inaccurate and misleading programme notes by James Murphy which were unworthy of such an admirable organisation as the NYO.

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