The annual appearance at the Proms of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain – 150 talented young players, untouched as yet by cynicism or routine – is always a thrill. And their latest, conducted by Antonio Pappano, was no exception, despite the difficulties of the three works they had chosen to play.
Edgard Varèse composed Amériques (1918-21, rev 1927) as his response to New York after settling there in 1915. Mysterious, Debussian flute melodies, poundings from The Rite of Spring, shrieks from Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, percussive tirades from the Futurist The Art of Noises stagger from one visionary flare-up to another, piling up in fearsome climactic riffs. The alert response of the players to the detail was no less impressive than Pappano's success in holding the episodic structure together.
Rachmaninov's fascinating Piano Concerto No 4 in G minor, Op 40 (1926, rev 1941) set a severer test. This is far more oblique in its material and compressed in its structures than the earlier concertos and, harmonically, among the subtlest things he ever wrote. Boris Berezovsky's ability to project a full, strong piano tone while sounding light and delicate was a major asset. The rapport of soloist, conductor and players in the mercurial surges and side-slips of the headlong finale had us on the edge of our seats.
Perhaps the cruellest choice was Aaron Copland's Symphony No 3 (1944-6), a conscious exercise in the populist grand manner to celebrate the US surviving the Second World War. But Copland's penchant for a high, bright, wide-open sound can leave the upper brass, woodwind and the violins perilously exposed.
Yet if this reading was at times untidy in detail and raw in sound, the spirit was tremendous, with Pappano finely grading the arch-shapes of the first and third movements and projecting the all-American scherzo and the ebullient finale with due brilliance, yet stopping short of the cornball inflation à la Bernstein that can overtake these pages.
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