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S & H Concert Review

Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo), National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Andrew Litton (con), Barbican, 14th April 2004 (MB)

"Now at last I have learned to orchestrate", Strauss remarked after the first rehearsal of Eine Alpensinfonie, that great paean to nature in music. An epic work – in every sense – it can seem, in the very greatest performances, Strauss’ orchestral masterpiece, a work of such colour and scope that work’s with similar ambitions – Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, for example – shrink beside it.

But it also requires a great conductor or a great orchestra to bring it off. That the National Youth Orchestra – never one to shy away from a challenge – should programme this most technically demanding of symphonies was not surprising given their past form in programming some of the biggest works in the repertoire (an unforgettable Mahler 8 under Rattle for example). True, the orchestra may not have scaled the highest peaks in this performance - too often Strauss’ writing above the stave for both brass and woodwind proved to be beyond these young players – but in terms of sheer passion and commitment it would be hard to think of a more thrilling performance. Andrew Litton drove the orchestra hard – and fast – whipping his players up the mountain; a certain opulence may have been lost in the process but the subtleties of this performance were never really things to be drawn to the listener’s attention. If the brass were sonically rather crude it was Litton’s approach to draw an unexpected warmth of sonority from the massed strings (a trademark of all youth orchestras it seems).

The concert had not begun well with a brash performance of Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman. An imbalance in the brass playing swamped all before it and horn intonation was weakly defined. Tempests raged, but little else came across in a performance that seemed under-rehearsed. Much better – and with a greatly reduced orchestra – although still, in my view, with an over-large one – was Mahler’s Rückert Lieder sung by the Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant. Occasionally the voice seemed on the big side for the intimacy of these songs but with the orchestra less subtle in its dynamics than the music needs it is possible she was compensating for some over zealous playing. Miss Hellekant achieved some wondrously refined singing in ‘Um Mitternacht’, although in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ her attention to detail was very wide of the mark. Inaccuracies in pronunciation were only part of the problem; an uncertain vibrato, if giving some suggestion of the ‘busyness’ of the vocal writing, only seemed misplaced. Nevertheless, the performance as a whole was ambitious in its scope – and Litton and his young players gave full-bodied support to their soloist.

Marc Bridle


Further Listening

Richard Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie – NDR Symphony Orchestra/Takashi Asahina, ODE Classics (ODCL 1001 – 1007)

Available HMV Japan




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