National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Vasily Petrenko at Royal Festival Hall [Judith Weir & Mahler]

We are shadows
Symphony No.10 [Performing Version of Mahler’s draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews]

The National Youth Choir of Scotland
Quay Voices

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vasily Petrenko. Styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photograph:Mark McNultyThe programme was well-made, a piece by Judith Weir that focuses on life’s transitions to the hereafter, with some gravestone-inscriptions to boot, juxtaposed with the ill Mahler’s eventually-unfinished if A-Z Tenth Symphony. Weir’s “We are shadows” was first heard in 2000 in Birmingham under Simon Rattle. Over its twenty minutes, Weir’s six-movement setting of Emily Dickinson and Chuang Tzu as well as burial-place and mosque inscriptions is anything but sombre; rather declamatory and colourful if macabre, suggestive of apparitions and religious ceremonies, innovative in matters of scoring, and always accessible without pandering downwards, with suggestions of the Anglican choral tradition that Herbert Howells might be remembered for. The use of children’s voices is a particularly effective foil to these anticipations of the beyond and remembrances of the dear-departed. The young choristers entered into Weir’s vibrant and dynamic world with glee and unanimity complementing the NYO members’ enjoyment of Weir’s orchestral motifs and innovations.

For all his unflappable control Vasily Petrenko seemed to be in pressing-ahead mood. The Weir took twenty minutes and knocked four off of the suggested playing-time. Not that one sensed any rush (and the composer was in attendance), but in the Mahler, for all the security and confidence of the NYO’s playing, Petrenko often harried the piece along, sometimes to advantage in suggesting that Mahler was at a ‘new beginning’, energetic with visionary ideas, and removing (consciously or otherwise) any sense of resignation or valediction. This was earthly life rather than the one beyond it, for climaxes blazed, and rhythms snapped, yet the second movement’s many change of metre seemed henpecked into position (if negotiated with assurance by the musicians), passages driven rather than allowed some buoyancy let alone playfulness and joy. Curiously that strange, short and pivotal movement, ‘Purgatorio’, dragged, and for which Petrenko might have waited rather longer before beginning it (and which further suggested his impatience). The sinister dance of the fourth movement also seemed contained by the bar-lines.

The outer movements were anything but the monumental that most conductors have made them, the first one a pulsing rather than a longing Adagio (with some baby-speak obbligato that was rather poignant in context). Yet in the finale, which included a beautiful and sensitive flute solo from Rosie Bowker (but she could have been afforded even more time for full existential expression), although Petrenko was fully conversant with the transcendence of the string-rich final pinnacle and the pain of the coda (when surely Mahler calls to mind Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’), there was an ever-increasing feeling of relentlessness as these 66 minutes literally flowed by. (That’s a swift overall timing, matched it must be said, albeit without any feeling of similar strictness, by such as Ormandy and Martinon in their recordings of ‘Cooke I’. The NYO played what was informally described as ‘Cooke III’.) Whatever the pangs for greater expansiveness, it wasn’t to come, although there were affecting moments, but this was certainly a vivid performance. One could take issue with many decisions made by Petrenko (and quibble even more with the man in Stalls seat D17, who, flagrantly flouting house rules, filmed the performance on his mobile, his accursed brightly-lit phone a constant distraction), but the overwhelming feeling afterwards was admiration for the flair and dedication of the young performers as well as for the tutoring behind the scenes to bring such talent to enviable fruition.

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