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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30, TRV 176 (1895-96) [31:36]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets
, Op. 34, H126 (1914-17) [48:01]
CBSO Youth Chorus
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Edward Gardner
rec. 8-9 August 2016, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is a shining example of music education in action. Founded in 1948, its vital contribution to the development of British musical talent can be measured by the very large number of people who have graduated from its ranks and gone on to have successful careers as professional musicians. Two of the most distinguished alumni of the NYOGB are the conductors Sir Mark Elder and Sir Simon Rattle. In recent years I’ve heard the orchestra tackle with great success several of the most demanding pieces in the symphonic repertoire and two of the most memorable occasions involved those two conductors leading them in Mahler. Rattle led the 2002 orchestra in a marvellous performance of the Eighth Symphony and the 2015 cohort was equally admirable performing the Ninth under Elder (review). Both of those performances took place in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the venue for these present recordings.

The orchestra comprises some 160 musicians who are chosen annually through an auditions programme that spans the length and breadth of the UK. The age range for membership is between 13 and 19. The orchestra assembles three times each year, during the school holidays at Christmas and Easter and then again in the summer. Aided by expert tuition from a range of specialist coaches they rehearse a demanding programme with a leading conductor and then perform the programme in question two or three times in premier concert halls. Their visits to the BBC Proms have become an annual institution as keenly anticipated by the Promenaders as by the players. Under Edward Gardner’s baton they played the two works recorded here at the Proms on 6 August 2016 before heading off to record them under studio conditions in Birmingham.

Chandos give prime billing to The Planets, and rightly so, but the Strauss tone poem comes first on this disc. The cavernous, tummy-wobbling bass pedal with which Also sprach Zarathustra begins suggests that the Chandos engineering is going to be pretty good: the sound is quiet and suspenseful but well defined so that, for example, you can tell when the contrabassoon stops playing. What my Seen and Heard International colleague, Alan Sanders has recently referred to as “the magisterial evocation of sunrise” is dramatically imposing. The passage sounds terrific and the sound of the mighty Klais organ caps the climax marvellously. Out of interest I sampled another recording of the work made in the same venue in 2012 by Andris Nelsons and the CBSO (review). That’s on an Orfeo CD and the recording is pretty good but the sound isn’t as detailed and doesn’t make so great an impact as this Chandos SACD. As a result the orchestral sound isn’t as well defined on Orfeo and also I’m not sure I care for the loud volume at which Nelsons has the CBSO drums playing as the organ sounds its final chord.

Reverting to the Gardner performance, the passage for solo strings at the start of ‘Von der Hinterweitlern’ is very well done and when the full body of strings joins in the quality of the playing is readily apparent. The gradual surge towards the end of ‘Von der großen Sehnsucht’ has a fine, impulsive feel while the following section, ‘Von den Freuden- und Leidenschaften’ displays Heldenleben-like athleticism and confidence. The fugal writing at the beginning of ‘Der Genesende’ is strongly articulated by the strings – the passage is marked Energisch and in this performance the music sounds suitably thrusting and forceful. Towards the end of this section I admired the sparkling woodwind playing. The orchestra’s leader, Millie Ashton contributes some excellent violin solos in ‘Das Tanzlied’ though here I thought Gardner might have encouraged his players to impart more ‘give’ to the music. In this section Nelsons and the CBSO give the waltz a more Viennese flavour. Millie Ashton is heard again in ‘Das Nachtwandlerlied’, bringing tenderness to her solos. The cruelly exposed final pages are brought off with sensitivity. Overall this performance of Also sprach is a considerable achievement and no allowances whatsoever need be made for the youth of the players.

If anything, the performance of The Planets is even better and I don’t believe I’m influenced in that judgement because I warm more to the work itself than to the Strauss. ‘Mars’ sets off with a well-sprung yet menacing tread; there’s plenty of power already in this performance. The switch to 5/2 time (3:08) sees the music take on a more oppressive tone and Gardner and his players execute very well the long crescendo back to the 5/4 meter (4:21); the juggernaut really rolls at this point. The climax of the piece (6:12) is properly shattering, the impact heightened by the splendid Chandos engineering. In complete contrast, ‘Venus’ is all about finesse and that’s just what we get from the NYOGB. In a beautifully calibrated performance the horn, violin and cello solos all give great pleasure. For a comparison I turned to the much-lauded Montreal recording by Charles Dutoit which I’ve owned for years and which I regard highly, both for the quality of the performance and the excellent Decca engineering. This is one of a few movements in which Dutoit paces the music more broadly than Gardner. His performance is lovely – the Montreal Symphony play marvellously for him – but I think Gardner achieves a more satisfying flow.

The Gardner performance of ‘Mercury’ is a darting, Will-‘o-the-wisp affair. The parallel with Peter Pan is neatly drawn in James Murphy’s notes. There’s terrific attention to detail in this excellent performance. ‘Jupiter’ gets off to an ebullient start, the music full of brio. When the famous ‘big tune’ arrives (2:49) Gardner judges the tempo well and the tune is dignified. The playing is splendid – I admire the tonal richness of the strings and horns. Goodness me, this really is one of the handful of truly great English tunes. When the tune is repeated on full orchestra it sounds splendid and pleasingly unforced. Turning to Dutoit we find an approach that is slightly more measured. His unveiling of the tune is broader and has more gravitas. On balance I prefer Gardner’s less stately way with it.

Gardner achieves a mysterious start to ‘Saturn’. The notes tell us that this was apparently Holst’s favourite movement; it’s certainly mine. The sombre processional begins on the trombones (1:44) and builds inexorably - and with admirable control – to the great climax at which point the clangour of bells is a disturbing addition to the scoring (4:42). Hereabouts the NYOGB’s brass section is massively imposing – and accorded superb presence by the engineers. From 5:46 the mysterious, soft ending – the tranquil acceptance of old age? – is magically done. This is a very fine performance. Dutoit is significantly slower overall – his timing of 9:51 compares with Gardner’s 8:30. His ascent to the towering climax is more deliberate, the power of the reading emphasised by hugely impressive playing from the Montreal Symphony. His climax is more drawn out than Gardner’s.

In ‘Uranus’ Gardner and his gifted players get the music to lollop along delightfully. The rollicking horn melody (1:19) is played with bounding ebullience. Once again Dutoit’s performance is slightly more measured and though it’s very impressive I wonder if he misses some of the humour in the music. The march (from 2:26), impelled on by expert timpani playing, is arguably a fraction too frisky under Gardner; on the other hand, there’s no denying that he makes the music sound bright and breezy. I’m inclined to think, though, that Dutoit’s slightly steadier approach is preferable, even though Gardner is refreshing. The Gardner performance achieves a stupendous climax and congratulations are due to the engineers for the fact that the organ glissando registers so well.

To bring off ‘Neptune’ successfully you need great technical control throughout the orchestra allied with poetry; that’s what happens here. The recording really does justice to the performance; there’s clarity yet also a hushed atmosphere. Not for the first time I wondered to what extent Vaughan Williams might have been paying a tribute to his old friend in the finale of his Sixth Symphony. From 4:25, imperceptibly at first, the young voices of the CBSO Youth Chorus add an extra dimension, singing with admirable purity. I suspect they were placed in the backstage area of Symphony Hall, which is particularly well suited to offstage singing. At the very end of the piece the fade-out of the choir is extensive and superbly achieved. The Dutoit performance is also very refined but Decca fade out his choir much sooner.

Edward Gardner leads a very distinguished performance of The Planets. It’s a virtuoso score but the NYOGB surmounts all its difficulties with apparent ease. Where Holst calls for power the players deliver it in spades but they’re just as successful in the many passages where sensitivity and delicacy are required. Since they’re also splendidly equipped for the demands of Also sprach Zarathustra it is clear that as it approaches its 70th anniversary the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is in great shape. Though they’re only involved for a few minutes the members of the CBSO Youth Chorus make a fine contribution, upholding the deserved reputation of the CBSO’s complement of an excellent choir.

I listened to the stereo option of this SACD and was mightily impressed by the results. Both of these scores require vast forces – and the NYOGB habitually fields a large ensemble anyway. Furthermore, the works are often texturally complex and encompass a wide dynamic range. The Chandos engineering is equal to these manifold challenges and the result is a very truthful sound which conveys the quietest of passages with good definition and which copes with the mightiest climaxes with ease. Working in the excellent acoustics of Symphony Hall, Birmingham Ralph Couzens and Jonathan Cooper have delivered the goods. There are many versions of both works in the catalogue but I’ve yet to hear a recording of either that is as excitingly engineered.

Having heard this orchestra quite a few times in recent years I wasn’t surprised by the accomplishment on display in these performances. However, it’s great to have a permanent reminder on disc of the excellence of this ensemble.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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