Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976)
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (1945) [17:07]
Edward ELGAR (1857 - 1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85 (1918/1919) (two movements only) [12:08]
Sea Pictures, op.37 (1897/1899) [22:08]
Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875) Carmen: Suite No.2 (1873/1874) [23:26]
Catherine Hopper (mezzo); Felix Schmidt (cello)
Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra/James Blair
rec. 23 February 2006 (Peter Grimes and Cello Concerto) and 14 March 2007 (Sea Pictures and Carmen), St John’s Smith Square, London. DDD
YMSO no catalogue number [75:17]

This is a fine reminder of just what a good orchestra the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra is. The four works chosen are not the most obvious but they show vibrant music-making from young people who are obviously enjoying the thrill of performance.

Britten’s Sea Interludes are given as real portraits and not as orchestral showpieces. There’s the real tang of the sea in the air, here. One can almost hear the seagulls circling above our heads. Sunday Morning is nice and sprightly and the Storm is suitably forceful, There’s some very fine playing here from the young musicians, and very good direction from James Blair.

The first two movements from Elgar’s Cello Concerto - I would willingly have the Bizet Suite removed in order to allow for the other two movements from Elgar’s masterpiece - receive a strong performance from Felix Schmidt; full of longing and loneliness in the first movement and the scherzo is held in check and not allowed to rush away in a flurry of semiquavers. This is a very pleasing, small-scale, performance, the perfect antidote to the hot-house interpretation of Jacqueline du Pré.

Catherine Hopper has a rich, fruity, voice, full of alto promise tinged with a mezzo’s upper register. Her performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures is very good, her enunciation is very good, there’s a controlled vibrato, and her breathing is fabulous. Perhaps the second song, In Haven, is a tad on the fast side but it can take it. This is, in any event, a small point. The whole performance is excellent, very exciting and doesn’t allow the music to wallow in the doldrums of some of the words. Ms Hooper is a singer with a big future, watch out for her.

In the 2nd Suite from Bizet’s opera Carmen, arranged by Fritz Hoffmann, Blair shows a sure touch, never too heavy. He really makes this delightful music sing, even though there are no voices, as such. There’s also a lovely, brash, version of the Toreadors’ march.

Since its formation in 1971, the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra has been conducted by James Blair in a wide range of repertoire, especially English works, such as Bax’s Phantasy for viola and orchestra, Delius’s and Havergal Brian’s Violin Concertos - all with the much missed Ralph Holmes. This disk is a proud tribute to its efforts in training young musicians. These performances are very good indeed, with spirit, insight and life. The recording is bright and clear, one would never know that they were from live performances were it not for the applause at the end of each piece, save the Cello Concerto.

Blair’s advocacy of English music has rubbed off on at least one former member of his orchestra. Shulah Oliver is the leader for the first two items and a few months ago I heard her give a stunning account of the Stanford Violin Concerto of such passionate advocacy that one could believe that she’d been playing it all her life. I suspect that the YMSO had something to do with that. This disk is more than just a reminder of a couple of fine concerts, it’s a series of performances in their own right and should be judged as such. Therefore I welcome this disk with much pleasure.

Bob Briggs