The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Fantasias [London premiere]
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 7 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This proved a well-planned ‘fantasy’ Proms concert and generally a splendid showcase for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Semyon Bychkov – a genial, authoritative and lucid conductor – had the very talented young players on his side. Even so, the Berlioz (how he would have relished the NYO’s lavish outsize forces, including five harps and founded on twelve double basses) was disappointingly under-characterised, somewhat lacklustre, a little uncertain, the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ finale under-tempo, these particular spell-mongers on a go-slow and dressed-down to civvies, pointed hat and broomstick deposited in the cloakroom, the cat content with a saucer of milk in an ante-room; no cauldron either (although the Royal Albert Hall was certainly one). The bells, of the church variety (I am reliably informed), were remote (somewhere backstage) and pathetically genteel, and Bychkov’s rather crass acceleration into the final bars also emphasised how sluggish and literal the rest of the movement had been; beforehand, the ‘March to the Scaffold’ had been measured enough in tempo (it could have been more so, as Berlioz indicates) but, some inappropriately sentimental touches in the strings aside, this was but noise signifying not very much. The first two movements similarly had failed to hit the spot, the opening one (without exposition repeat, a request also denied the ‘March’) rather stiff, lacking wildness, and the second-movement ‘Waltz’ (the optional cornet solo not taken) somewhat precious and too carefully moulded for its carefree character. Best was the central ‘Scène aux champs’, closely observed dynamically, spaciously delivered if a little cloying, these numbers of strings in this acoustic somewhat losing textures their all-important ventilation, yet Bychkov brought out to a revelatory degree Berlioz’s indebtedness to Beethoven, not least his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the closing thunder-suggesting timpani quite potent.
Yet, concentration on this performance was undermined by some awfully disruptive coughing that really got to one’s ears, cutting unthinkingly into silences and quiet moments, and also by that infernal BBCTV camera-on-a-crane that is a visual distraction and contemptuous of a paying audience as it swings hither and thither (and also purveying those ‘clever’ angles that now make concerts on television virtually unwatchable). Perhaps the off-stage oboist (not distant-sounding enough, by the way, and I was the other side of the hall) in Berlioz’s third movement was given his own close-up camera so as to really upset the composer’s perspectives for when televised (21 August on BBC2), pace the supposed-to-be far-away posthorn (trumpet) solo in Donald Runnicles’s conducting of Mahler 3 (from the Proms a few nights earlier)?
Beginning the concert, Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (one of only a handful of pieces left to us by this very self-critical composer, he wrote and then destroyed a Second Symphony), an absolute masterpiece, its popularity aided by Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” and therein Mickey Mouse, yet performances of it have become fewer, partly due to the folly of not programming that many ‘overtures’ these days. Bychkov and the NYO caught well Dukas’s humour and dramatic impetus, bassoons lolloping along in that droll yet surreptitious tune that never fails to raise a smile. Bychkov played the ‘long game’, boiling the water steadily if not quite to an overwhelming cascade, aware of the music’s playful and macabre aspects; good to have this great piece reclaimed to a large audience both inside and outside the hall.
Stealing the show though was Julian Anderson (no relation to this reviewer). Fantasias was composed for The Cleveland Orchestra, completed last year and first heard in November under Jonathan Nott. This London premiere followed the NYO’s European one in Birmingham a few nights earlier. In five movements lasting 25 minutes, Anderson has composed a major addition to the repertoire beginning with snazzy calls to attention from the brass, which turns out to be the exclusive scoring of ‘Fantasia 1’, an exhilarating, here dazzlingly played entrée. Using a large orchestra, including an eight-person timpani-less percussion section (which never seems over-used), Anderson goes on to challenge any orchestra with much brilliant and subtly intertwined writing, not least the polyphony of ‘Fantasia 2’, a propulsive scherzo, further distinguished by long string lines. Much of the music is active, there is much surface incident, and one is aware of linking features that are below the beguiling top-soil, such as in the relatively lengthy ‘Fantasia 3’ that seems to be in three sections, or at least has two significant pauses, in which melody, texture and suggestiveness are at their most lush, in contrast with the whimsical, witty miniature that follows. As reference, and no more than that, one could cite Birtwistle, Ligeti, Lutosławski and Tippett as being co-conspirators in Anderson’s gripping orchestral adventure(s), the five movements seeming closely connected yet significantly different to stand apart, heavy-duty brass returning towards the close of ‘Fantasia 5’ as a sort of full-circle marker to give relationship to the whole.
If rainforests and “Tom and Jerry” have been, respectively, a direct influence and a post-composition suggestion then these may not be immediately apparent to the listener. But what is not in doubt is Anderson’s masterly handling of the orchestra and his vibrant invention, the 25 minutes of Fantasias proving a very gratifying listen. Semyon Bychkov, in a previous Prom this season, introduced us to Gunther Schuller’s singularly impressive Where the Word Ends; now his championing of Julian Anderson’s Fantasias is another triumph. Written for the virtuosity of The Cleveland Orchestra, I doubt if the NYO was in any way inferior to its American counterpart, for the Proms performance was immaculately prepared and seemed entirely on top of every nook and cranny of Anderson’s engrossing and multi-faceted orchestral caprice.