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 PROM 31 -Tchaikovsky, Lutoslawski, Respighi: Stephen Hough (piano) National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Vasily Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.8.2009 (J-PJ)

Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor

Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra

Respighi: Roman Festivals

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain must have bussed in their fan club en masse, judging from the wild cheering that greeted each player's entry on stage. But there was much to celebrate during this concert by the country’s premier youth orchestra.

With players as young as 14 and no older than 19, it was a brave decision to include Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra in the programme. Technically tricky and complex in its structure, it is not a piece for the inexperienced. But the orchestra and their principal conductor Vasily Petrenko gave a performance of great panache and insight. The opening Intrada was suitably brilliant, with Petrenko’s tight and observant direction eliciting a blaze of colour from the strings and brass. The ensuing Capriccio was refreshingly delicate and subtle, though perhaps lacking in the sense of humour that lies at the heart of this scherzo. The orchestra picked its way through the complex finale with confidence and bravura. Hats off in particular to the brass players, five harpists and strings.

From one orchestral showcase to another, albeit of a different quality. Amazingly, this was the first performance of Respighi’s 1928 suite Roman Festivals (Feste Romane) at the Proms. The last of his ‘Roman trilogy’, the piece is pure musical kitsch, writ large on a huge canvas. But subtlety and deep meaning was not Respighi’s intention, and the NYOGB used the work as a stirring showcase for their talents. The players made much of Respighi’s borrowings from Stravinsky, especially during the opening ‘Circuses’ movement, and the final ‘Epiphany’, with its strong shades of Petrushka.

Soloist Stephen Hough returned to the Proms stage during the first half of the concert for Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Like the second concerto, which Hough delivered during Prom 16, No.1 suffers from a rather overblown structure, with grand themes and gestures that are not always fully resolved. Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful work and a crowd pleaser. Hough focused more on the work’s inner stillness and melodic intimacy rather than the virtuosic pyrotechnics, which he tended to rush over. In the slow Andantino he excelled during the moments of placid reflection, accompanied by nice accompaniment on horn and oboe. The final Allegro felt a bit like a race to the finish, with the orchestra rushing to keep up. But the breakneck speed made for thrilling listening, and the rousing applause was well deserved.

John-Pierre Joyce


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