BBC Proms reviews

Prom 26: European Union Youth Orchestra/ Petrenko @ Royal Albert Hall, London

5 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

If 4th August 2014 was, quite rightly, focused on the events of a hundred years ago, with the Proms providing its own highly moving commemoration, there was a sense in which the following night’s concert was taking the time to look to the future. Judging by the European Union Youth Orchestra’s performances of two works under the baton of Vasily Petrenko (standing in for an ailing Semyon Bychkov), it certainly looks a bright one.

The programme, consisting of Berio’s Sinfonia and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43, certainly did not patronise the young players, and presented challenges to which they rose superbly. Written in 1968-69, Sinfonia was Berio’s consciously modern take on the symphony, with all of the traditions and conventions that the form carries, and reflects on Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King (which occurred while he was writing it) and the times more generally. Musicologist Paul Griffiths suggests that while Beethoven’s symphonies spoke with persuasive individuality, Sinfonia speaks as a diverse crowd. It is a point that the EUYO conveyed well in an interpretation that captured the edginess and anxiety in this cacophonous sound world precisely by presenting such a tight, smooth and balanced performance.

The singing was provided by London Voices, who surrounded Petrenko’s podium, the strings sitting directly behind them. Berio stipulated that the eight singers should be amplified, but the sheer size of the Albert Hall may have required their volume to be turned up to levels not required in other venues. The resulting effect, it seems, varied considerably in different parts of the vast interior. From two thirds of the way back in the stalls I was closer to one speaker than the stage, with the consequence that the sound felt particularly detached from its original source. Enunciation, however, seemed very good, but many people in the arena on the other hand struggled to understand the phrases uttered in the third movement.

The first movement sees fragments of text from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and The Cooked uttered, while the second divides the name of Martin Luther King into its phonemes. The third movement recomposes the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, sometimes following it very closely, at other times diverging wildly as the music feels glazed with the works of Bach, Ravel and Debussy. The phrases uttered here are the most coherent in the whole piece and in this instance calls to ‘keep going’ rubbed shoulders with topical references to Shostakovich’s Fourth and Mr Petrenko. The fourth movement provides reflections on the first two, but in this performance the fifth was the most intriguing. Most symphonies’ final movements, no matter how much they may return to previous themes, still have some sense of development and conclusion. Here, however, all of the previous movements feature and combine, and that seems to be the end product (and a very successful one) in its own right. As Berio explained, the movement constitutes ‘the veritable analysis of Sinfonia, carried out through the language and medium of the composition itself’.

Leader Mathieu van Bellen delivered some stark and highly effective solos, and keyboardists Kerem Hasan and Antonio Oyarzabal provided an appropriate sense of sublimity. The work of the wind, however, proved the most captivating, the skill lying in the ability to convey a sense of anxiety and agitation through such brilliantly precise and sensitive playing. This section also shone in the Shostakovich. The strings were equally accomplished, but generally the symphony requires that they make their impact through en masse gestures. The wind and brass, where there are only around four to each instrument anyway, conversely enjoy many solos, and Géraldine Clément’s flute and Nikolaj Henriques’ bassoon playing stood out.

The percussion, however, was equally persuasive, and there were no weak links in this exceptional performance of such a complex work. We have long had reason to doubt that Shostakovich ever really saw his creation as a ‘muddle’, with political rather than musical factors seemingly responsible for its burial for decades. The European Union Youth Orchestra’s clear and insightful interpretation, however, made it impossible to see how the piece could ever have been viewed by anyone as a mess.

This Prom will be available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for thirty days. For further information on this and all BBC Proms click here.

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