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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1895-1896) [31:35]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32/H.125 (1914-1917) [48:01]
CBSO Youth Chorus
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Edward Gardner (conductor)
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 8 & 9 August 2016

It’s rare for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain to release a CD, and Chandos have done us a great service by facilitating this one, because it showcases these wonderful musicians in repertoire that stretches them and shows they are in no way wanting.

Big orchestral tone poems like these are a shrewd choice for the NYO, because the pieces benefit from the vigour, excitement and joy of discovery that you often associate with young musicians, but they are also extremely challenging to play and give no quarter to any musician who isn’t up to the task. There are no such dangers here, though: they rise to the challenges brilliantly, and it helps that they have someone as experienced and sympathetic as Edward Gardner at the helm to guide them through with confidence.

Zarathustra opens with a thrilling rumble and a fearless trumpet line, leading into a tutti climax of thrilling power and impressive sweep. The sound across the orchestra is brilliantly full and clear, something that’s very important in this work about the full expanse of humanity from bottom (glowing cellos for the Backworldsmen) to top (glassy flutes and violins in the Night Wanderer’s Song). The recorded sound is excellent, too, which helps in this endeavour, and the great climax of ‘Joys and Sorrows’ sounds super, with blazing violins and dark, glowing low brass, full of depth and grandeur. The wispy, dark fugue of ‘Wissenschaft’ sounds clear, for all its gloom, and the music then trips cheerfully through the lighter elements of the upper echelons, climaxing in a Dance Song of great schwung (and a solo of marvellous maturity from Millie Ashton). Gardner shapes the whole thing like a masterful storyteller, drawing on his narrative experience in the opera house. He gets the ebb and flow of the piece just right, knowing when to hold back and when to throw on a few extra cylinders.

As a performance it’s very good, and you don’t have to make any allowances for it. It faces stiff competition in a crowded field, however, and it doesn’t realistically improve on classics such as Reiner’s from Chicago or Karajan’s from Berlin (rather than Vienna); or, more recently, Andris Nelsons’ magnificent recent account from Birmingham.

The performance of The Planets is a different matter, however; it is actually something rather special. The precision of the playing would shame many a more experienced band, and ‘Mars’ crackles with tension, the articulation absolutely on-the-beat throughout, and the timpani having a forward thrust that is very effective indeed. The slower central section has a dark, sinister sway to it, and the final climax is suitably speaker-shaking. ‘Venus’is quietly dreamy, with beautifully airy violins and a twinkling celesta that is perfectly captured by the Chandos engineers. ‘Mercury’ chatters delightfully, and ‘Jupiter’ bristles with ebullience that can only be described as – there is no other word for it – youthful! Gardner’s fast tempo helps, but there’s an ineffable sense of energy that really adds something special. The “Vow to thee” moment is suitably magisterial, but also carries a sense of building that swept me off my feet, and the ending explodes like a firework. ‘Saturn’, on the other hand, has the inexorable tread of a weary giant, building into a threatening sound of tremendous power that then dissolves into a moment of utter bliss at the end.  Perhaps the honkytonk magician of ‘Uranus’ could have been let off the leash a little bit more, but he still sounds convincingly brash.  They save the best for last, though, in the most magical rendering of ‘Neptune’ that I’ve heard in years.  It begins so softly that it’s almost on the verge of audibility – too soft for some score-reading purists, perhaps – but the effect is tremendous.  The rest of the piece unfolds at a similar level so that the listener feels as though he or she is standing on the edge of infinity, and the chorus, when they enter, are so soft as to seem to come out of the orchestral texture.  Their final fade is brilliantly managed, too, and I felt my spine tingling as the music dissolved into silence.

So the Zarathustra is good, but this Planets is really excellent. A great tribute to these musicians and to their mentors (and recording team) who helped it all to happen. It’s a Recording of the Month for The Planets alone.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ John Quinn


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