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Britten, Elgar and Sibelius, Mahler and Bruckner at The Barbican April 2002, with some thoughts about Youth Orchestras in UK and Spain (PGW)

Pleasures were not completely unalloyed in several prestigious Barbican concerts this month. Rostropovich's tribute to Britten, conducting the LSO in early music by his close friend, did not make for a great occasion. The American Overture, which the composer had forgotten having composed, had enough of his individuality to deserve exhumation. Maxim Vengerov played well in the violin concerto, which was new to him (he has also recorded it for CD) but other players and conductors have made the passacaglia more moving. John Mark Ainsley did not bring anything to Les Illuminations special enough for a special occasion. The Peter Grimes interludes are far better in context and no longer need to be given in concert? Thomas Quasthoff is an icon in the estimable line of Itzhak Perlman and Evelyn Glennie, but his bass-baritone is better in the lower reaches and he had to resort to an uncomfortable quasi-falsetto in Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, sung with hyper-expressivity, but with an unduly placid accompaniment by Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester. That was followed by a dull account of the original version of Bruckner's No.3, sounding longer than ever and which left this imperfect Brucknerian vowing heretically never to listen to it again, not in any version!

British and Spanish Youth Orchestras

Over to the children! The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, still in black armbands for the Queen Mother, never fails to thrill and exhilarate, and this was one of their finest concerts ever. Sir Colin Davis moulded Sibelius 3 with extraordinary unanimity of rubato phrasing, and magical pianissimos from a huge orchestra without any rough edges. Miraculous, with wonderful sound throughout; the NYO under its guest conductors has become used to balancing the orchestral sections. The cellos were especially memorable in both symphonies. Elgar 2 capped the Sibelius - with its sumptuous orchestration of a pessimistic tract, hollow heroics for a disappearing age, a disturbingly unamusing scherzo and a finale which evaporates to a quiet conclusion, its near-hour was draining; there was no reassuring feel-good encore, nor should there have been.

NYO programmes feature major symphonic works to give concert places to up to 150 eager young musicians, many of whom will go on to careers outside music, but all will draw on their experience for the rest of their lives. For Sir Colin Davis in Elgar 2, snap up his interpretation in a great performance with the LSO on LSOLive LSO0018 (No 1 is on LSO0017) at the ridiculous price of 5 each.

That other countries have different objectives and policies was brought to my attention the same week by receipt of a portrait CD of recent music by Ramon Lazkano, whose music and work with students has been reviewed several times on S&H. With sponsorship it is often possible nowadays for not-yet-famous contemporary composers to assemble CDs of chamber and ensemble music, but orchestral scores pose greater problems.

This excellent compilation gives a welcome opportunity to rehear Laskano's distinctive approach to the piano in Laugarren Bakarrizketa, played by Jean François Heisser, whose performance of that composer's El Cuarto Monologo had made a particular impact in San Sebastian . But two orchestral works U Loak and Zur-Haitz display young musicians enjoying easy familiarity with modern complexity idioms, not an opportunity which would come the way of students in our NYO.

Ramon Lazkano was Composer-in-residence for the National Youth Orchestra of Spain 19989 and the performance and recordings of these two works, conducted respectively by Josep Caballe and Pablo Gonzalez, are some of the fruits of that arrangement. They are thoroughly original and individual examples of music by a composer who shows great versatility and integrity and has even, through my recommendation, contributed to Thalia Myers' Spectrum 3. His new CD may be acquired through this link, and should be heard by those responsible to guide our UK youth orchestras through this exciting new century.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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