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S & H Prom Review

Prom 29: Messiaen, Berlioz, Prokofiev, Lawrence Power (viola), National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Royal Albert Hall, 9th August 2003 (CT)


The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain found themselves sitting on the Royal Albert Hall stage on what was one of the hottest nights of recent summers, facing an opening work in Messiaenís early (1930) Les offrandes oubliées, that commences, somewhat dauntingly in the circumstances, with subdued mysticism. A series of hushed, slow moving chord progressions, marked Très lent, reveal their early chronology by the unmistakeable presence of Debussy, yet simultaneously succeed in pointing forward to the mature Messiaen that was soon to manifest itself. Judging by the care taken in tuning up, the orchestra were clearly very much aware of the havoc such tropical temperatures can wreak with intonation, yet the immediate atmosphere of the opening bars revealed that any such early concerns would soon be forgotten. If Messiaenís central depiction of the sins of humanity lacked a little punch early on Tortelier soon wound the tension up before a sublime final movement, "Extrêmement lent", the seamless transition of woodwind to strings, a short way in, handled with magical sensitivity.

It was fitting that Berliozís Harold in Italy should feature one of the rising stars of the viola, Radio Three New Generation Artist, Lawrence Power, already a musician with an international reputation and an established performer with the Nash Ensemble. The beauty of his tone was evident from the opening entry, as was a seemingly conscious sense of restraint that whilst often admirable just occasionally seemed to withdraw a little too far. Tortelierís command over the orchestra on the other hand was reciprocated with an evident sense of respect from the players, controlled yet with the joie de vivre and freshness that we come to expect from a youth orchestra that achieves a degree of consistency from year to year that can defy belief. The second movement March of the Pilgrims was pulled off with telling delicacy whilst in complete contrast Tortelierís masterful pacing of the final movement gave the final paragraphs tremendous potency.

A similar sense of pacing and architectural control were in evidence in Prokofievís rigorously structured Fifth Symphony, allied with impressive attention to detail that can only come from painstaking rehearsal. The ebb and flow of the opening first movement was realised with maturity far beyond the tender years of the players, the heroic coda thrillingly paced. The occasional stamp from the podium, that was clearly audible even from well back in the stalls, could be forgiven as Tortelier clearly enjoyed himself as much as the players. Both the wit and sinister elements of the Romeo and Juliet inspired scherzo were evident in equal measure and although the ensemble in the final Allegro giocoso may not always have been perfect the infectious spirit of the playing came through to the last. All in all music making with a feel good factor that many a top flight orchestra will do well to emulate during the course of the season.

Finally, as Prom audiences are justifiably lambasted by critics and music lovers alike for their ill timed applause and apparent total lack of respect for others in the audience, let alone the musicians on the stage (I would suggest reading Melanie Eskenaziís review of Prom 12 for more on this subject) it would be wrong of me not to comment on an audience that was impeccably behaved. This was my first Prom of the season and as the closing resonances of each movement sounded I found myself stiffening in anticipation of the barrage that never came. Had the NYO attracted a more educated audience perhaps? Well, no doubt the heat had kept some away as the hall was not as full as would have been expected but there were of course the usual healthy number of family members and friends present to support the players in force. Enthusiasm there was in abundance as testified by the cheers that rung round the hall at the conclusion of the Prokofiev, yet the silence between movements was gratifying to the degree that it was not only the temperature that contributed to the warmth of a satisfyingly complete concert experience.

Christopher Thomas


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