Prom 22: 5th August 2001 – European Invasion

Symphony No.4 in F minor
Symphony No.1 in A flat major

European Union Youth Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For the fifth time of asking in a week, this hugely talented and committed orchestra of young musicians (23 is the maximum age) from all over Europe demonstrated at this Prom that music is alive, well and in very good hands. Of course, an orchestra of 125 relatively inexperienced players – 82 of which are string players; the foundation is 12 double basses – needs a strong, sympathetic and warm conductor. Colin Davis is just the man. Throughout the evening the playing was superb, albeit false-entry and -pitching as Elgar reached his triumphant peroration betrayed some tiredness. Quite a week, one imagines, for everybody involved to trawl two taxing symphonies to France, Germany, Portugal and Luxembourg before reaching London. (I wonder if the other countries also got the unrefined and pulled-about Dvorak Slavonic Dance – Op.46/1 – that was this concert’s encore!)

The extra string players gave an extra depth of sound, a sonorous carpet, though Colin Davis isn’t a conductor to bludgeon music or simply crank-up dynamics to subjugate music, and sensitive listeners, to constantly-rich panoply. Davis treated these great symphonies to judicious and insightful preparation; the orchestra’s response was uninhibited, communicative, team-spirited and skilled.

Tchaikovsky rarely features in Davis’s repertoire; indeed, I can’t recall him conducting any of the symphonies. On the evidence of this Fourth he respects Tchaikovsky as a genuine symphonist. No need for hysteria, phrasal distending or hectoring Tchaikovsky’s troubled psyche; Davis went to the heart of the Fourth’s musical matter.

The first movement was remarkably cohesive. Any doubt that Davis’s enlivened opening would prove restrictive for lyrical and balletic episodes was put to rest within a few minutes: for all his iron-grip, uncompromising even, on the direction of this long movement, Davis’s malleable, variegated and dynamic approach ensured Tchaikovsky’s contrasts were exactly that. An easy flow informed the ’Andantino’, its dissolution to darkness sensitively traced. The pizzicato scherzo was given with infectious bounce and the finale drove to a fiery and joyous conclusion – nothing forced or showy. Sir Colin’s wit (intelligence and humour), depth of feeling and unpretentiousness gave Tchaikovsky his symphonic self-respect, emotion emerging from the music rather than it being applied.

One of today’s great conductors, Colin Davis’s account of Elgar, wonderful though it was for the most part, didn’t quite have the same consistency of focus. The spacious (20-minute) account of the first movement – after an introduction much slower than ’Andante’, with a ratio between ’nobilmente’ and ’semplice’ that was about 80-20 – could, by a hairsbreadth, have been tauter. That said, he got the balance between symphonic resolution and subjective expression almost ideally. Davis really understands Elgar’s complex interweaving of symphonic statement and personal declaration; the fantasy element – which places Schumann rather than Brahms as Elgar’s German counterpart – was tellingly etched.

It’s quite an achievement to persuade 100-plus young people to play as heterogeneous a composer as Elgar with as much understanding and devotion as was here achieved. If the scherzo lacked an edge, and the finale wasn’t quite the integrated conclusion it needs to be, the rapt slow movement – ample and eloquent – had a depth of utterance moving beyond words, the magical triple-pianissimo passage towards its close played from a collective soul.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Monday, 13 August, at 2 o’clock

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