European Union Youth Orchestra

(K)ein Sommernachtstraum
Violin Concerto in A, K219 (Turkish)
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

Janine Jansen (violin)

European Union Youth Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Thankfully not visibly delayed following the current alert and increased security at airports, the ranks of the European Union Youth Orchestra (admittedly not as big as the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, but – at 132 players – still larger than a ‘normal orchestra’) appeared on time at this early Prom (6.30), which was also broadcast on BBC2 as well as Radio 3 (although with 5 minutes difference between the two, television being the later!).

As with the National Youth Orchestra, the Royal Albert Hall was packed, the Arena goodly full too, for a riot of a concert, especially so in Schnittke’s scurrilous assumption of one of his own earliest themes, from his Greeting Rondo of 1946 (and many others besides) in his ‘(Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which was written for the Salzburg Festival’s Shakespeare theme in 1985. It starts with the last violinist in the second-violin section, here appositely positioned close to the flautist with whom she performed a duet.

With the theme tossed across the orchestra, including a harpsichord and piano, the music achieves Shostakovich-like sardonic heights, in extreme volume, but (equally Shostakovich-like) often only uses the minimum of its epic orchestral forces. It all went to show how Schnittke’s music is not simply gimmicky, and how its humour has not dated.

Shedding more than two thirds of its players, a much leaner EUYO accompanied Dutch violinist Janine Jansen in the most-played Mozart violin concerto at the Proms, the so-called ‘Turkish’. Robust and lively, Jansen gave a spirited account of the solo part, using Joachim’s cadenzas, perhaps indicating her more romantic view of the work. We perhaps forget Ashkenazy’s assured way with Mozart, his long experience of directing the piano concertos from the keyboard coming to the fore here.

Back to full strength (although minus Schnittke’s piano and harpsichord) for Shostakovich’s most overtly Mahlerian symphony, the massive Fourth, which laid unperformed for 25 years following Stalin’s attack on “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Shostakovich withdrawing the symphony before the scheduled premiere. Eventually premièred by Kyril Kondrashin in 1961 (with Ashkenazy in the audience) and given its western première at the 1962 Edinburgh International Festival, again by Kondrashin, it is an epic three-movement structure with sprawling outer ones flanking a much-shorter scherzo that acts as the symphony’s fulcrum.

With so many eager players at his disposal, Ashkenazy was able to revel in what Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman described as Shostakovich’s “overwhelming musical force” (quoted in Stephen Johnson’s programme note). The music had a tangible as well as aural impact – in the climaxes one felt as if standing against a strong wind. In the repeated final climaxes before the desolate coda, my body reacted with tingling sensations running up and down spine and limbs, a physical reaction that testifies to the utmost conviction of this performance better than any amount of words. It was truly shattering and, if I had had to move after the extraordinary coda (as Johnson suggests, its bass throbbing is akin to the nihilism of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony), I too might have stumbled as Ashkenazy did climbing down from the podium.

Ashkenazy is a direct conductor of Shostakovich. His performance (like his 1989 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording), at under the hour, is fleeter than almost all others (save Kondrashin, with Barshai at 62 minutes, Jansons 64 and Haitink 67’). But Ashkenazy has a great ear for Shostakovich’s use of timbres, often audaciously paired. And, although with hunched shoulders and hands held high, jabbing with his baton, he looks quite awkward on the podium, he rewards the players with broad smiles and thumbs up.

The tour progresses to Denmark and Holland with the Shostakovich symphony (paired with Jansen playing the Second Shostakovich Violin Concerto) while Latvia and Berlin hear the Mozart coupled with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

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