Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 28: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain / Benjamin @ Royal Albert Hall, London

4 August 2018

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Saturday evening’s Prom was essentially an exploration of orchestral texture, and the NYO – fielding, as ever, an impressive stageful of teenage musicians, including a monumentally solid lower brass section – rose to the challenge.

Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain (in its Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement) opened the evening, with the lavish complement of seven trombones and three tubas blasting out that hallmark sinister drop-of-a-sixth melody. It was not all about volume, though, as George Benjamin controlled the orchestra’s dynamic with precision, such that the subtle shading of the story (from the gathering of the witches to the wakening of the peasant boy at dawn) emerged; between them, they also managed, somehow, to imbue the work with a more Russian flavour than it sometimes has, giving the woodwind melodies a much more Asiatic lilt, and accentuating some of the tempo changes for maximum rubato effect.

Benjamin’s own short Dance Figures was given an equally subtle treatment, allowing its clever changes of timbre to shine: the delicate, cobwebby string passages in the opening ‘Spell’; the woodwinds, in ‘Recit’ playing in twelfths to create a nazard organ-stop effect; the rich, fruity brass notes in ‘Interruptions’; some impressive brass hocketing in ‘Hammers’; a delicious rich cello ensemble in ‘Alone’; and a final close on a ghostly rumble of double basses punctuated by twinkles from harps and vibraphone.

György Ligeti’s works can be violently challenging, but Lontano is a bit of a maverick. Scored for large orchestra (with no percussion) and marked, in a rather old-fashioned way, espressivo, it is an exercise in calm legato: a series of long, held unison notes (whose timbres change as different instruments are added or subtracted) each gradually morphs into a cluster-chord with a different orchestral texture. Again, the NYO absolutely inhabited the piece, bringing out all of its many instrumental shades from woodwind and shimmering violins to muted tubas with an unearthly high solo violin, presenting the work almost as a slowly changing light-show.

Debussy’s La Mer owes much to its descriptive orchestration (completed in Eastbourne, of all places) that takes the listener through all the moods of the sea. Once more, Benjamin coaxed every shade out of the orchestra from the to-and-fro of the texture at the opening – edgy cellos, a magnificent horn chorus and warm trombones – to a stunning climax. The whirling strings and little muted trumpet fanfares in the second sketch gave way to the ruffles of the waves in the flutes and harps, and the sudden crescendo/decrescendo toward the end was nicely handled. The third sketch’s tempestuousness was summoned perfectly in the busy, grumbling low strings, the clear muted trumpet, the stormy horns and the intimidatingly broad brass chorus.

It was perhaps only in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand that the performance sagged a little. It is a mercurial work, its orchestration changing almost by the second, and the usual care in covering the joins, such that a clear trajectory is followed, seemed, on occasion, to be absent – as though it had been rehearsed by section and not quite glued together. It was still, however, full of wonderful moments (particularly the little trombone slides, pointing up Ravel’s jazz influences). Tamara Stefanovich, the soloist, gave an excellent account, showing an understanding of the piano part’s somewhat schizophrenic nature – hovering between sunny, skipping passages and angry attack.

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