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S & H Concert Review

Liszt, Dohnányi, Rachmaninov; István Várdai (cello), National Musicians Symphony Orchestra, James Blair (conductor), St. Johnís Smith Square, 7th July 2003 (AR).


Founded as the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra by James Blair in 1971, the National Musicians Symphony Orchestra offers training and playing experience to students from music colleges all over Britain. Many of our leading symphony orchestras have ex-NMSO players within their ranks. The importance of the NMSO is that it provides the essential bridge between the colleges and the profession, giving students the experience of becoming familiar with the classical repertoire, rehearsal schedules and performing in major concert halls throughout the country.

This concert opened with a broad spacious account of Franz Lisztís Les Préludes. This popular symphonic poem can easily sound brash but under James Blairís sensitive baton the music had a noble grandeur; light and tranquil in the lyrical passages, and elevating in the weighty climactic moments where the percussion and brass played with great incisiveness. Notably impressive was the assured and refined timpani playing of Tom Marsden whose use of hard sticks had great effect.

Ernö Dohnányiís rarely heard Konzertstuck for cello in D-major, Op.12 was written in 1904 and dedicated to the German cellist Hugo Becker who gave the first performance under the direction of the composer. The Konzertstuck is formed as a single unbroken strand of music falling into three clearly defined sections as opposed to distinct movements. The 17 year old Hungarian cellist István Várdai, coming from a celebrated family of musicians in the city of Pécs, gave each of the sections a distinctly different sound world, with Blair and the NMSO offering sensitive support and polished playing.

Várdai played the opening passages in a subdued, mellow manner, shifting to a more brooding and darker sound in the slow central section, whilst in the concluding part Várdaiís performance took on an acidic bite, which added even greater poignancy. His refreshingly unmannered playing eschewed the usual agonised grimaces and heavy-handed scraping affected by so many star cellists who play to the gallery. For a musician so young his playing was remarkably mature and self-assured.

Dohnányiís sadly neglected score sounded reminiscent of Franz Schmidt and Richard Strauss with its full-blooded Romanticism and melancholic lyricism. This almost forgotten masterpiece deserves to be played in the concert hall more often and István Várdai should be asked to record his masterly interpretation of it for one of the majors, perhaps coupled with Sir Donald Francis Toveyís similarly underplayed Cello Concerto.

(Readers may wish to hear Dohnányiís Konzertstuck with Maria Kliegel (cello), Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, Budapest, Michael Halasz, on Naxos 8.554468 review).

The concluding work was Serge Rachmaninovís Second Symphony in E minor, Op.27 which gave the NMSO a chance to show off and shine. James Blair conducted the Largo-Allegro moderato with great flair and thrusting urgency, coaxing forth some poignant woodwind playing. The Allegro molto was played with a far grainier and metallic sound than we are used to, with Blair producing a cutting terror with his jagged rhythms.

The NMSO strings were in their element in the Adagio with Blair slowly building up tension and expression, perfectly judging the climaxes but without making the music sound like a kitsch Hollywood film score. This was a very emotionally draining experience so deeply felt and expressive were both conducting and playing. Blair and his inspired forces played with great flair and swagger in the concluding Finale: Allegro vivace with the brass and percussion having a crisp impact without ever drowning out their colleagues. The seemingly magnified and close acoustic of St. Johnís Smith Square was an ideal instrument in itself for showing off the clarity and textures of the NMSO.

The Rt. Hon. John Gummer gave an impassioned plea to the audience for donations to keep this orchestra thriving, arguing that it represented our future soloists as well as orchestra players of the future. Gummer made the point, in the context of funding the arts, that wherever he went abroad in Europe he was always told: "How bad we are about cultureÖ." in Britain.

With the recent projected shake-up in the distribution of the National Lottery funding, it would not be a bad idea for music lovers to unite and insist that a substantial cheque be written for the NMSO to secure their future. As Gummer reminded us: "The most important thing one can do is to make a difference". And the NMSO does make a real and valuable difference to the cultural life of this country.

Alex Russell


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