They call themselves Britains biggest orchestra, and with 170 young musicians from across the country, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain can certainly claim that title. But with big claims come great expectations, and these were not entirely fulfilled.
The centrepiece of their winter tour (with performances in Liverpool and Leeds on 5 and 8 January), the concert was framed by two works for huge orchestra, involving the participation of as many players as possible. Prokofievs 1915 Scythian Suite was a rousing curtain raiser. But for all its orchestral brilliance, the suite is a hollow, vulgar, work. Conceived as a ballet for Sergei Diaghilev but never staged, it bears all the hallmarks of Prokofievs enfant terrible days, with its attempt to shock and scandalise. Conductor Kristjan Jrvi and the NYO at least managed to control the scores unwieldy elements.
There was a more heartfelt approach to Janceks Sinfonietta, which ended the concert. A real tour de force for brass, the piece also has its gentler, reflective moments. Overall, the NYOs delivery was steady and assured, despite Jrvis loose conducting technique. Brass and woodwind were first class, with sturdy support from the strings.
A generally fine account, too, of Liszts Totentanz. As a set of variations for piano on the Dies Irae theme, there is not a great deal for the orchestra to do. And what work there is highlights Liszts weakness in writing for the orchestra. Nevertheless, it made for engaging listening thanks to Stewart Goodyears blazing solo performance. He thundered up and down the keyboard, relishing the works reckless diabolism.
Alban Bergs Violin Concerto calls for an altogether different approach, one which the young performers could not quite manage.There was nothing wrong with American violinist Tai Murrays playing. She displayed a fine and assured technique. But she and the NYO dwelt too much on the works dedication to the memory of an angel. As a result, the performance was bogged down with pathetic pity for the dead Manon Gropius and ignored Bergs own sense of weariness and frustration. The opening was hesitant and the second movement crumpled shortly after the quotation from Bachs Es is genug cantata. At least soloist and orchestra came together for a finely delineated ending. But the thunderous applause from an audience mostly made up of proud parents and friends couldnt mask a disappointing performance.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk