sat 18/11/2017

Prom 33: Schwizgebel, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Gardner | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 33: Schwizgebel, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Gardner

Prom 33: Schwizgebel, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Gardner

20th century orchestral concertos in a riot of sophisticated colour from terrific teenagers

Edward Gardner, getting razor-sharp playing from the NYOAll images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

After the European Union Youth Orchestra hit unsurpassable heights last week, the Proms plateau of excellence remained available to another youth carnival of weird and wonderful 20th century monsters. If the EUYO showed us that Shostakovich’s bewildering Fourth Symphony, for all its grim trajectory and ultimate annihilation, is also an orchestral showpiece, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain demonstrated that the same could be said, with freedom and character encouraged by conductor Edward Gardner, for Stravinsky’s Petrushka before Lutosławski, following Bartok’s example, officially applied the name of "Concerto for Orchestra" to his expressive early play of sounds.

Did any allowances need to be made for youth, with an age limit even lower than the EUYO’s (an astonishing sweet 19; the youngest player this year was a 14-year-old trombonist)? Absolutely not, beyond the kind of inevitable brass splits and cracks you occasionally get in a professional orchestra. Once past a smudged song from the cellos several bars in, this Petrushka was razor-sharp, possibly even a bit over-driven by Gardner in the outer fairground scenes.Yet what personality he allowed – coached, perhaps – in Stravinsky’s many solos, beginning with Epsie Thompson’s capricious flute solo coaxing the puppets in the magician’s booth to life and continuing in a string of ineffably phrased earthly delights.

Louis Schwizgebel and the NYO at the PromsThey included Ho Ting Chan’s high bassoon line, the shy, tortured clarinet bitonality of Petrushka’s anguished soul, and the flirty Ballerina’s trumpet taken by the right sex – Matilda Lloyd, surely an Alison Balsom in the making, who went on to offer sassy vibrato in the Pas de deux with the Moor. I’ve never heard so much human life from older players in this work. Above all, it was a joy to hear the riotous giant barrel-organ ensemble, with 13 double-basses gilding the lily-root for the fatter dancing bear, of the original 1911 version for Diaghilev, when we usually get Stravinsky pared-down but not necessarily clearer 1947 overhaul.

The orchestra takes a bit of a back seat to another puppet come to life, the audacious solo role in Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. The Swiss-Chinese pianist Louis Schwizgebel (pictured above), a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, is still in his 20s, albeit the other end of the decade to Prokofiev when he launched his own career in this visiting-card while still at the St Petersburg Conservatory. I had Schwizgebel down as a romantic on the strength of his mature Schubert and Beethoven on a BBC Music Magazine cover disc, but he can do the naughty stuff, the beat poetry, too, dashing off the runs, tongue-pokings and nose-thumbings as well as any enfant terrible. Good to hear detail usually obscured from his colleagues, too, especially the sombre trombone chords which, like so much else in the work, insist on popping up just when you think they’ve had their moment in the sun.

Still, we were longing to hear Schwizgebel alone, especially from a side of the hall where the piano isn’t easily assessed, and he obliged with perfect transcendentalism in Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s minor-key Serenade. For once the show-off composer didn’t swamp his better; and Schwizgebel made it sound, ever so delicately, like four hands at one keyboard in the canonic echoes of the tune in the last verse. Here’s yet another young pianist deserving of the limelight every inch as much as Benjamin Grosvenor, who by many accounts doesn’t seem to have acquitted himself quite so characterfully in his Proms concerto on Friday.

TEdward Gardner conducting the NYO at the Promsime moved on for the second half, but it didn't signal extra vividness: what can sound more modern than Petrushka, after all? And Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000, a kind of fanfare for the Cleveland Orchestra, may pile on the sonorities but not the substance; at three blurry minutes it’s not a note too short. The clear profile came back in Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, an early work the line of which some of us wish he’d continued to follow. Lower strings dug into the folk idiom, woodwind piped Bobby Shaftoe-style nursery rhymes and textures glittered or scythed.

To my ears Gardner (pictured above), a very experienced Lutosławskian, seemed to lose his grip on the vast final Passacaglia, Toccata e Corale, despite or perhaps because of driving it too hard, and the crucial repeated bass line couldn’t be heard at all for minutes from where I was sitting. But that’s no reflection on the players, tireless and brilliant to the end. And what a joy, when the population in the Arena up to last night seemed to have got distinctly older, to see so many young people in the audience. They couldn't have come to a livelier programme.

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