Prom 31: National Youth Orchestra/Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 12 August 2009
So disarmingly boyish-looking is the talented Vasily Petrenko that he might easily have been mistaken for one of the National Youth Orchestra's own stepping out to the podium to conduct them. But appearances, as we know, can be deceptive and the most striking aspects of this annual Prom jamboree was Petrenko's maturity in seeking out and refining the precious quietudes in three flashy blockbusting showpieces. Getting an orchestra this big (pretty much double everything) to sound shapely and diaphanous is quite an achievement.
Undoubtedly, these terrific youngsters will have learned a great deal about playing the romantic repertoire by simply listening to Stephen Hough. In Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 he was the epitome of a Golden Age virtuoso with his balletic elegance and dazzling rhythmic reflexes. There was an extraordinary moment midway through the first movement where the mounting intensity of the NYO strings seemed to transfer energy into Hough's hands with fusillades of double-octaves powering us into the first cadenza.
But then came the pellucid dreaminess of the slow movement, where Hough's exquisite rubati were truly mirrored in the sound he made and his sensibility seemed to proliferate through each and every NYO player. It was a performance of properly dramatic extremes, of quicksilver brilliance and of thunderous excitement from Hough himself. But he pointedly chose an encore which reflected quietly on Tchaikovsky's troubled soul – a transcription of the song "None But the Lonely Heart" – and that was infinitely telling.
The trouble with playing Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra and Respighi's Feste Romane back to back – even as high-decibel vehicles to exercise eager young-bloods – is that they are inclined to cancel each other out. The early Lutoslawski invokes everyone but himself and aside from the microcosmic scurryings of the scherzo, Petrenko was perhaps too preoccupied with harnessing the collective energy of the band. The Respighi – for all that the Albert Hall is a wicked substitute for the Circus Maximus (with an arena packed with willing sacrificial lambs) – roared impressively, but was way too uniformly measured in the final "Epiphany". That's where rude youth can and should forget its manners.
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