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S & H Concert Review

Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Barbican Centre, 15th April, 2003 (AR)


The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain provides a unique space for Britain’s talented young musicians, of which there are 150+ members between the ages of 13 and 19, to learn from leading professionals and perform in prestigious venues throughout the country, with internationally renowned conductors. But as this concert showed, all orchestras, professional or otherwise, can suffer from the same problem of having the ‘wrong’ conductor on the night.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, the opening item of the NYO’s concert, never really took off, so static was the conducting of Yan Pascal Tortelier. He often seemed to make the music sound freeze-framed, largely holding his enthusiastic young musicians in check. Things only picked up towards the end of the first movement with a well delivered climax, notable for some superbly played timpani, every stroke delivered with intensity and precision.

In the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, the violins produced playing that was wonderfully delicate, whilst the brass had an appropriately piercing dissonance, but Tortellier’s erratic conducting fragmented the flow of the music. The Allegro molto suffered from some similarly lacklustre conducting, and it was again only at the end of the movement that the strings achieved a sense of attack, the final passages being especially well judged with the timpanist again delivering excellence on cue.

Tortelier’s mannered conducting never really gave this wonderful orchestra a chance in this work, a great shame considering how well they responded to Simon Rattle’s baton at last year’s Proms.

Tchaikovsky’sManfred: Symphony in Four Scenes after Byron’s dramatic poem, Op. 58’, is not a ‘real’ symphony in the classical sense of the term but more of a hybrid mixture of tone poem and ballet music cobbled together. This was the first time that the NYO had played this score, and the results were astonishing, with playing of the very highest order from the 153 musicians (including 8 horns and 4 harps) packed on to the stage.

The first movement opened with riveting and grainy ‘cello playing which the rest of the orchestra followed with the same high-octane intensity, producing very expressive and knife-edged playing. Again, however, the orchestra was let down by the irregular tempi signalled by their conductor. Tortelier’s habit of fragmenting this movement into separate ‘vignettes’ ruined the development and flow of the music, and succeeded only in breaking it’s tension and forward momentum.

The Vivace con spirito was disjointed. However, the woodwind played with great buoyancy and precision, perfectly complimented by graceful and sensitive playing from the strings. Tortelier’s conducting improved briefly in the third movement, which was mercifully devoid of the gear changes which had inflected so much of the earlier music-making. The strings displayed a graceful radiance and lyricism which contrasted effectively with the sudden, brilliant entries by the brass and percussion in the more dramatic moments.

The playing in the finale took on an even higher degree of urgency and intensity, with the trombones and tubas displaying real weight and impact, whilst the harps were clear and sensitive. One of the most striking aspects was the audibility of the woodwind, fully heard amidst the orchestral tempest. Whilst the organ had great impact, it verged close to the gothic although the closing bars did not so much come to a gently unfolding conclusion as an abrupt halt.

The National Youth Orchestra got a well-deserved ovation for what was an astonishing feat of playing, despite being hamstrung by the somewhat mannered conducting of Yan Pascal Tortelier. For all his vigorous podium acrobatics this great orchestra deserved better.

Alex Russell

This concert will be broadcast on BBC 4 on May 5th. It is currently Radio 3’s concert of the week.







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