Prom 25 – NYO of Scotland

Overture, A Comedy of Errors
Trumpet Concerto [London premiere]
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

National Youth Orchestra of Scotland
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sometimes in youth one plunges into things without a moment’s hesitation. So it was with this programme by the 13-22 year-olds of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland – an unfamiliar overture by a Scots composer born in 1888 and only now being discovered, the taxing trumpet concerto by Sally Beamish and then Elgar’s Second Symphony – a demanding programme by any standards. For the most part it came off quite remarkably well.

Youthful the NYO of Scotland may be but their numbers include some really fine players. More importantly, they make real music. If this is the future of orchestral playing in Scotland – and one hopes that not too many of them ’Take the High Road to England’ – then the future is bright.

I doubt that too many of the audience had previously heard a live performance of Cecil Coles’s music. A Comedy of Errors was written when he was just 23 and working in Stuttgart; like all his orchestral music, it remains unpublished. This is music worth resurrecting – well crafted and orchestrated, and melodious; this concert-overture is unashamedly sectional and rather in the manner of Elgar’s. It received a fine performance including some notably sonorous brass playing and a sensitive violin solo from the orchestra’s leader, Heather Kennedy. One’s appetite whetted to hear more of Coles’s music such as Behind the Lines, left at his premature death at the Somme in 1918, can be satisfied with a Hyperion CD that Brabbins has made.

Sally Beamish’s Trumpet Concerto was commissioned by the NYO of Scotland and is dedicated to Håkan Hardenberger. In her programme note Beamish comments on how the music reflects the dichotomies of current Urban Life, the spectacular skylines contrasted with the soft underbelly of urban decay, the squalor, the rusting pipes and the waste. Another influence is the rich sound of the jazz player, Clifford Brown. In addition to the normal orchestra there is a battery of percussion. Certainly the music reflected urban preoccupations, the second movement calling to mind the angst-ridden soundworld of Berg. The outer movements have a propulsive energy, especially the finale that opens with a barrage of percussion despatched with virtuoso panache by the young players, which leads to a march-like theme and cadenza played with equal virtuosity by Hardenberger. This is music of extreme physical impact that pulls no punches and almost demands to be heard in the flesh. It is not an easy listen but it received an outstandingly confident performance.

The Elgar was notable for the sensitivity of its quieter episodes as well as for some incisively weighty playing on the part of the heavy brass. The first movement’s quiet inner core was effectively done, its ebb and flow caught without loss of momentum and its disquieting sense of the malign never far away. Inevitably there was a lack of weight in the string sound, but what was remarkable was the frisson at the climax of the slow movement as the violins soared aloft at full power; this movement was outstanding. The following ’Presto’ posed some problems of ensemble, stretching the young players to the limit. In the finale Brabbins hit on the perfect forward-moving tempo and the movement had a fine glow, culminating in an appropriately ruminative and poignant epilogue.

Martyn Brabbins, who studied with the legendary Ilya Musin in St Petersburg, has not always received the recognition he deserves, perhaps because of his commitment to contemporary music. However, he is an excellent all-round musician with a notably clear stick technique who does justice to a wide range of music. He also has a fine sense of ’what needs to be conducted’ and, equally important, ’what does not need to be conducted’, significant when working with non-professional musicians. If the Royal Scottish National Orchestra require a successor to Lazarev, Brabbins seems an obvious choice.

The last word should go to the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland itself, which deserves every possible encouragement. It is a huge artistic and administrative achievement to have succeeded in creating an orchestra of this quality and the orchestra deserves every possible support. The best compliment the BBC could pay would be to invite it back to the Proms regularly.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Saturday 9 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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