National Youth Orchestra

Má vlast – Vyšehrad; From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields; Vltava
Symphony No.1 in D

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 7 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The National Youth Orchestra’s annual visit to the Proms is always a significant event. This year it was Sir Roger Norrington’s turn to bring his individuality to bear.

Norrington has for many years researched the history of musical performance – from the 1960s with the Schütz Choir, through his work with the London Classical Players, to more recent ‘informed’ performances of Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner. His skills as an interpreter and conductor, though perhaps controversial, are rarely in question.

As is usual in a Norrington orchestral set-up, the two sets of violins were antiphonal and the double basses were in a line across the back of the stage, the latter giving a strong underpinning to the whole ensemble and was clearly for practical reasons as well as acoustic. Although, as is my usual complaint, raised brass spells disaster for balance, and did so here. On either side of the stage was a pair of harps, which emphasised the antipodal opening to Vyšehrad, the opening cadenzas invoking distant times. This is the first in the nationalistic six-movement cycle written by Smetana between 1874-9. On the whole the NYO navigated things very well with only the slightest waver from the solo trumpet, though the wind and brass was as confident as any professional orchestra. And we do judge the NYO by professional standards and do so as routine, which is quite astounding given the musicians that performed here are all less than eighteen years old.

As a conductor Norrington is fastidious; for the listener there is always something to learn from him; and these teenage musicians will certainly have been enlightened about the performing practice relevant to the music being played, not least the eschewing of vibrato. Vyšehrad’s fugato passage was as precise and as attentive to detail as is possible, and how beautifully babbling, frothing and flowing were the woodwinds at the effervescent opening of Vltava, the most popular of these tone poems, every care taken over dynamics and accentuation. Norrington conducted the NYO’s outsize forces as he would a small group and achieved fine results – no detail too small. The occasional, surprising change of pace aside, all other turns including the major key return as the river makes its way into Prague were wonderfully natural.

Mahler’s First Symphony started badly – the noisy audience insisted on coughing, sneezing and burping during the quiet opening. The composer was unsure of the form of the work (the first performance included a fifth movement, ‘Blumine’), the symphonic poem was entitled “Titan”, and on revision it became a four-movement symphony.

Mahler is a peculiar composer in that he rarely uses block-harmony, rather the musical lines or counterpoint provide the harmonic base. This causes a problem to anyone ill-prepared given the choice of which lines to promote and which to use as ‘harmony’. Mahler is microscopic in his orchestral markings, so it was bemusing to find Norrington missing key elements while drawing attention to motifs that are not so important, the one for the cuckoo for example, which was never short of appearances. The tempo was nifty, rather harried.

Norrington seemed happy for the symphony to play itself, yet there are numerous entries in the second movement where a nod from the conductor would be confidence-boosting; but no nod came and entries were unsure and reticent, although the Ländler trio, with rubato, gave a sense of Viennese similitude that was effective without being affected.

For the mock funeral march Norrington ignored the first two directions of “solemn and measured, but not dragging”. Despite a well-played double bass solo, this movement needs more space. Into the fourth movement Norrington continued to be short of cues; and when they did come they could be mistimed.

It would be a shame, though, to dwell on Norrington’s misconception of the piece especially as the orchestra played it just as he required. The NYO’s musicians are first-rate and will have had a memorable evening. And the Smetana was electric, a triumph.

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