Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Four Last Songs
Symphony No. 3
Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Carlos Miguel Prieto
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 5 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
A programme with a superficially conventional look for what has become a traditional and very welcome event. Quite apart from the enthusiasm of the young musicians the sheer size of the orchestra (160 plus) is usually a perfect fit for the outsize performance space and guarantees a good turn-out from family members.
All three advertised works were products of the 1940s, two of them composed with the virtuosity of American ensembles very much in mind. The Hindemith received its UK premiere during the 1946 season of Promenade Concerts with three more performances in the 1950s. A fall from grace thereafter however. Hence Carlos Miguel Prieto was only the fifth conductor to have taken it up after a hiatus that lasted until 1976. A lively and apparently popular guide, his certainly wasn’t the subtlest take on the score. For once the sheer size of the ensemble created as many problems as it resolved. As throughout the evening, the strings struggled to produce sufficient sound to counter the massive contingent of brass, although there were distinguished woodwind solos aplenty and plenty of swing. In the hall the general boisterousness fell short though it may be that balance problems were resolved by Radio 3’s sound team. Still, one felt Hindemith’s heavy hand was partly to blame. Great fun but too many tuttis.
A different challenge in the Strauss. Daniel Hibbert managed an eloquent horn solo but with a soloist in the stately tradition of Kirsten Flagstad it was perhaps unrealistic to expect too lively or linear an orchestral texture. The young South African soprano did not disappoint, her remarkably calm, assured and elegant stage presence reminiscent of Jessye Norman even if the (very beautiful) voice is slighter. Once past the first song, the sound was confidently projected, the text at times less so. ‘Im Abendrot’ was taken slowly. As an encore all those on stage participated in Errollyn Wallen’s a cappella arrangement of the spiritual ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ – a crowd-pleaser to be sure but utterly wrong, directly contradicting Strauss’s atheistic or at best pantheistic preparations for death. Did no-one notice?
After the interval, a return to more densely scored, more obviously ‘difficult’ music. An earlier incarnation of the National Youth Orchestra had been responsible for the fifth and most recent Proms rendition of Copland’s Third Symphony in 2008. This time, if the general noise was impressive enough, the harmonic direction of the music seemed rather clouded at speeds perhaps too fast for comfort. While not every detail registered meaningfully there were still memorable passages, most notably the wonderfully hushed opening of the third movement. Once again the substantial encore had the unintended consequence of negating the lofty intent of the main offering. Staged in the active manner patented by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, Benny Goodman’s take on Louis Prima’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)’ demonstrated the conductor’s flair for communication, dance and other theatrics. The players were game too. Whether it had been altogether wise to build a programme from predominantly loud, rehearsal-intensive fare is another matter. And no doubt a matter of taste.