National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

Symphony in Three Movements
Taras Bulba
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In a brochure separate from the ‘normal’ Proms programme, Alan Rusbridger, Chairman of the National Youth Orchestra, and using the words of Gianandrea Noseda (who conducted the NYO earlier in the year), seemed to offer some ‘spin’ that suggests all is fine with musical education in this country. Maybe it is – I have no direct experience – but others, composers and performers directly involved in teaching, tell tales of woe: that libraries have decimated their stocks of scores and that the demise of the peripatetic music-teacher has done untold harm. That the NYO can audition, choose and hone 150 or so young musicians of exceptional skills is, of course, gratifying … but!

Sir Colin Davis has long demonstrated an ability to inspire young musicians. In this demanding programme, one displaying three very distinctive voices of twentieth-century music, these very talented musicians displayed both individual and corporate skills – a combination of intensive tutoring followed by Sir Colin bringing his own perceptions to bear. The Stravinsky and Sibelius pieces performed here have been long-time staples in Davis’s repertoire, with the Janáček being fairly new (or a belated return from his ‘younger’ days and given a couple of outings with the London Symphony Orchestra in recent seasons).

The opening of Stravinsky’s masterly Symphony in Three Movements impressed immediately for its incision and energy, with rhythmic complexities holding no fears for the young musicians. For all the outsize proportions of the orchestra (five harps instead of Stravinsky’s prescribed one, for example, and with other instruments in proportion), the Royal Albert Hall remained indefatigably vast and tended to nullify impact; but there was no doubting the confidence that the players exuded – whether in the point and radiance of Stravinsky’s second movement (and in the various solos therein, during which the motions of the crane-like camera for the live BBC2 broadcast were particular distracting) or the clarity and drive of the finale.

Janáček’s Taras Bulba began as it should … as if in mid-sentence, the story having started to unfold before the first notes. Colin Davis invests much emphasis into his conducting of this work, sometimes overly-spotlighting its garishness but not negating its confidentiality; yet, conversely, the most graphic passages were underplayed (reticent timpani) and the last movement seemed rather repetitive. The entrance of the organ was severely miscalculated in loudness; rather than underpinning, it contested with the brass and obliterated the strings.

Colin Davis and Sibelius are synonymous. In two of the composer’s very greatest achievements (which is saying something) there was the slightest suggestion of punches being pulled. Pohjola’s Daughter was in any case marred by severe outbreaks of thoughtless coughing and premature applause but impressed in the way that Davis conjured the music’s powerful narrative, the brooding loneliness and vivid descriptions that are seamless if contrasting in design, the whole launched by an impressive cello solo from Emily Francis.

The remarkable single-movement span of Symphony No.7 began from the same depths that Pohjola’s Daughter had descended to. Davis’s mastery of the structure was patrician, so too the intensity of nodal points. Whether other passages were concentrated enough or the seeming serenity of the music’s disclosure was due to Davis having led this music so often before is a moot point. Certainly his patience in building to powerful upsurges was magisterial and, by the close, the sense of a journey completed was palpable, the young musicians displaying complete faith in Davis’s direction of and identification with this music. Following appreciative applause, Sir Colin linked arms with leader Charlotte Reid and led her gallantly off the platform.

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