Looking over the massed ranks of the National Youth Orchestra one might easily imagine that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice had worked some of his magic on the proliferation of instruments.
Six bassoons cavorted to Dukas’ jolly tune as images of Mickey Mouse and his industrious broomsticks came back to haunt us.
It was a mighty racket Semyon Bychkov unleashed from his super-sized brass section as the elder magician returned to admonish his apprentice and restore order from chaos but not half as mighty or audacious as that same section delivered with the clarion calls and clattering syncopations which mark out the first of Julian Anderson’s Fantasias. It’s an incredibly arresting start to a piece which sets out to pitch sound against motion in a succession of brilliantly imagined polyphonies and is expressly designed to excite and tantalise and, in the case of the NYO, challenge and exercise. Even the extended “Nocturne” at its heart hums to a profusion of Bartokian insect life, all manner of con legno, slap-pizzicati, knocking and scratching effects conspiring to produce hyperactivity against a calm backdrop.
The Disneyfication of Dukas was as nothing compared to some of Anderson’s more manic, you might even say cartoonish, exertions but even he couldn’t sustain musical interest (as opposed to virtuosity) over this length. Great compositional gamesmanship for sure - but what do you take away from it beyond an unqualified admiration for its technical brilliance? Me, I’d go back to the opening fantasia for brass alone. That’s the bigger piece.
And speaking of bigger, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique was a brave and risky choice for even youngsters of this calibre and I take my hat off to Bychkov for coaxing a performance of such sophistication from them. The volatility and febrility of the piece demands such flexibility from every section, not least the strings, and Bychkov miraculously had them achieving a lightness of touch and quickness of response that was tantamount to producing a sleek sports car from a juggernaut. More magic.
We might have wished for a little more impetus up the steps of the scaffold (loving the flatulent trombones) and into the midst of the witches’ Sabbath – and what feeble offstage bells announcing the “Dies Irae”? – but it was good to see so many youngsters getting high safely and legally.