Powder Her Face – Overture, Waltz and Finale
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
La valse – poème choreographique
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 19 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The afternoon of the evening before! This is not a competition or about scoring points. We can celebrate the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain equally (and here in close comparison) – and be glad of each (and other such ensembles). It’s simply that with fifteen hours or so between the two groups appearing in the Royal Festival Hall, it was the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain that offered the most rewarding programme and the more inspired performances. With nothing to separate the respective orchestras’ talent, preparation and commitment, a lot depends on the conductor. A particularly vital Paul Daniel didn’t let up for a second, always secure of the long line of each piece, and producing vivid detail and a grateful dynamic range: the National Youth Orchestra can play quieter than the Venezuelans!
If the Royal Festival Hall was less buzzing and less full (if a decent house) than Dudamel and his charges achieved, the NYO (just as outsize as the SBYO, founded on 12 double basses) produced the more involving and significant performances.
In this dance-related programme, the excerpts from “Powder Her Face” immediately established the players’ absolute assurance in dealing appreciatively with Thomas Adès’s pastiche and taint (this programme had previously been played in Gateshead and Leeds). If the ‘Overture’ goes on a bit (despite being short) with its big-band flourishes, the ‘Waltz’ includes beguiling harp (the NYO sported five) and pizzicato filigree (just a little Ligeti-like at times).
Rachmaninov’s final masterpiece (written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra) enjoys some of the composer’s most-sophisticated orchestration and a depth of expression that confronts ‘last things’. It received here a performance of fiery passion and a big heart; nothing was applied, and Daniel ensured this was a real ‘symphonic’ performance (the ‘dance’ part of the title is misleadingly lightweight for music of such intensity and force), one with a plangent saxophone solo from James Gold, and leader Michael Foyle is already gifted with rich tone and generous phrase. Massed strings (violins antiphonal) were glorious, and if some percussion detail was covered, winds and brass broke through with distinction (and in good balance), Daniel ensuring that Rachmaninov’s scrupulousness and combustion were in fine equilibrium, the waltz of the second movement kept moving without losing its macabre side, and the huge upheaval of the finale – both in its exclamation and frenetic ride to carnage (the gong given as ‘solo’ at the close, which Ormandy doesn’t do in his definitive recording) – carrying a real emotional charge and sending a chill of confrontation through the hall.
George Benjamin’s Dance Figures (2004) has already established itself as a modern classic (this was at least its third performance in London), music both for “modern dance” (the composer’s description) and the concert hall, its birth in the latter being courtesy of Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony. David Robertson and Oliver Knussen have already ensured two veritable accounts in London; and Paul Daniel has added a third, the NYO absolutely on top of music that is a real challenge to orchestras in its fastidiousness. Daniel might have intensified the silence that divides sections 6 and 7 by conducting through it (as Knussen did), but whether eerie, strident, mechanistic or ethereally beautiful, Dance Figures is a cracking score (at times a counterpart to Debussy’s Jeux), one that grows in stature with each encounter. Benjamin seemed delighted.
Finally, Ravel’s La valse, the opening bars begun on the barest whisper of sound (from subterranean nothingness). Like The Rite of Spring, it’s all too easy to play La valse as nothing more than a showpiece; Daniel and the NYO avoided this, the waltz itself given with opulent sweep, the interjections that gradually drag the rhythms to destruction (this is music that relates to World War One) barbed in their edge. In the cataclysm of the final bars the performance could have been even more brutal and hysterical, but the sense of destruction (Ravel’s is a more universal counterpart to Rachmaninov’s very personal last rites) was palpable and thrilling.
A shame, and a shock, to learn then that the NYO is in financial difficulties (Paul Daniel announced this pre-concert), future plans in jeopardy. He wrote a cheque out there and then and hopes others will follow suit. Charity begins at home!