At the Barbican on Wednesday evening, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain worked on the assumption that bigger is better.
Not in terms of the choice of piece (this was a selection of shorter works), but rather with regard to the size of the orchestra.
The platform was packed, and if the vast complement of instruments provided visceral thrills, it also tended to produce a sound that was overcooked.
The opener – Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture Hamlet – suffered especially. Tchaikovsky may have penned swirling chromatics and vicious brass to tell the bloody tale, but precision of line and instrumental conversation are still necessary.
The solo oboe’s superlative playing in the ‘Ophelia’ section was undermined by an overly weighty accompaniment from the strings; the murderous climaxes penetrated into the cranium too brashly. And although the orchestra boasted a pleasing (even Russian) bass bloom, conductor Neville Marriner struggled to find any sweat-dripping-from-the-brow tension, most noticeably in the concluding funeral march where the violins especially could have pushed a lot harder.
More successful was Respighi’s Fontane di Roma: the composition is vividly evocative (though hardly pictorial) and the NYO’s interpretation was crammed with intricate detail and no loss of sonic luxury. The third movement was astoundingly played: the metallic, brass-infested climaxes and ringing violin lines thundered into the hall with tremendous clarity. Even the London Symphony Orchestra on a good day would struggle to play with such electricity. And who was not stirred by the sound of woodwind solos breaking from the string canvas in the final movement? Only some squawking violins near the end could have been polished.
Polish is hardly needed in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances, which tries to condense most of West Side Story into twenty minutes of music and ends up somewhere between bombast and structural confusion. But it is also snappy of rhythm and melodically brilliant, and though sections had different ideas about syncopation in the Prologue, it all condensed into an involving enough performance. In the chamber music dialogue of the Somewhere elaboration (which boasted an especially fine horn solo), in the white-hot exhilaration of the dances’ careering trombones and thumping percussion, the NYO flourished.
But again in Strauss’s Orchestral Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, I could have done with less aural penetration. I liked the heady musical landscapes of strings and woodwind, but the waltzes needed a more delicate touch along with a tighter violin line. Three tubas, six harps and eight (yes, eight) trombones later, and the ear needed a rest.