NYO/Tortelier – 15 April

Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Manfred – Symphony after Byron, Op.58

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 April, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

National Youth Orchestra concerts usually prove uplifting experiences – for talent, preparation and commitment, and for the future safeguards of music. That one anticipates a NYO concert with the keenest of anticipation is due to the high standards that it has set over many years. This one with Tortelier didn’t quite reach the pantheon. A large part of this is to do with Tortelier’s view of the music – especially the Sibelius – but this particular version of the NYO (all of the players in their teens of course) didn’t always achieve the expected focus.

The outsize proportions of the NYO (9 horns, 8 trombones, 4 harps, strings commensurate in personnel), certainly produced some roof-raising dynamics, occasionally too much so, and some dominant textures, although Tortelier generally achieved well balanced climaxes. What was lacking was inspiration. Discipline there was aplenty, although not always the impression that assiduous preparation had been applied to the most exposed parts of Manfred – the Scherzo, laboured in tempo, sounded a tad fragile and rarely suggestive of fairies and waterfalls. Elsewhere Tortelier’s mix of smoothness and power, and some rather noisy bustling, didn’t present one of Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces in the best of lights. Thankfully there were no cuts or changes of orchestration (Manfred has been done a raw deal by some conductors) and if the third movement bell strokes were in no man’s land rather than distant, and the organ heralding final redemption was a bit stodgy, the closing bars rather slid through, then it was the ardour of collective strings, the heady force closing the first movement, and some star woodwind playing, especially flute and oboe that reported the really memorable aspects of this performance.

On paper, it seemed a miscalculation to put the Sibelius before Manfred. After climbing the mountainside with Sibelius, one really doesn’t want anything else. In the event, it didn’t matter, for Tortelier’s static account, with some curious tempo changes (not least the quickening before the final spaced-out chords), never seemed to be going anywhere – arrival tacked-on (the end of the first movement). Only the Finale had some sort of purpose, Tortelier bringing-out the double basses’ col legno effects with unusual clarity – enough to wonder if Sibelius actually intended this!

Passages of uncertainty aside, the collective strength and purpose of the NYO was more in evidence than not – and despite my misgivings regarding Tortelier’s interpretations, this concert was certainly a very good advert for youth and music. The NYO continues to be an outstanding part of British musical life.

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