MUSIC / Everything in its place: Robert Maycock on the European Community YO, the Northern Sinfonia and The Sixteen at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
Two cellists turned conductor, two dazzling piano concertos, and a sprawling choral rarity from the Baroque, together turned the Prom weekend into compulsive listening. With the run of starry visitors that starts later this week, a season with the usual ups and downs (more of the former) now seems set to head into new dimensions. As for what they deliver, the likes of the Concertgebouw and the Vienna Philharmonic will be pushed to match the precision, spirit and delicacy which the European Community Youth Orchestra revealed when, on Saturday, it accompanied Martha Argerich in the Piano Concerto No 3 by Prokofiev.

Since its first tour in 1978, the ECYO has surrounded its travels with Euro-rhetoric; this year's stop at the Albert Hall was also part of the current European Arts Festival. For all the talk of international harmony, the overriding value of its work has always rested in something more elemental: the way it plays. Competition to join it remains fierce, but the real determinant of its quality must be painstaking preparation. I cannot remember hearing half as much of Prokofiev's score in any other single performance. Every strand and detail seemed long considered, then placed exactly into the pattern. Yet nothing of freshness and verve went lacking. Argerich's famous performance has kept its ferocious pace and intensity over the years, and these players rose to the challenge.

Mstislav Rostropovich drew great breadth of phrasing in the calmer episodes, moulding a distinctive musical character which carried over when he conducted Shostakovich's Symphony No 11. This is not exactly a piece that hides its secrets; the whole unwieldy epic, narrating in musical terms the revolutionary events of 1905 in Russia, stands precariously between high emotion and picturesque bombast. It needs careful shaping and, more important, a sense of playing as though lives depended on it - just right for youth orchestras that have the technical skills. This performance sustained a heat that could have melted iron curtains.

Friday's concerto soloist, Christian Zacharias in the Beethoven No 1, certainly matched Argerich for brilliance and spontaneity, though he is a very different kind of musician: his playing was subtly shaded, beautifully phrased and often witty - daring to search for new meanings, full of relish in the discovery. Once settled, rather below the manic pace that Heinrich Schiff set at the outset, this too was among the season's most vital experiences.

Schiff as conductor, at least in classical works, seems another personality altogether from the high-Romantic cellist - some shameless lingering at the heart of the minuet in Mozart's Haffner Symphony was the exception, and the Northern Sinfonia responded with neat, light, direct playing. The joker in this concert's pack was Alfred Schnittke, whose Concerto Grosso No 1 is becoming almost as much a repertoire piece as the Shostakovich symphonies thanks to its peculiar sense of fantasy, making it sound like two wild parties amid the encircling gloom. As you expect with the Sinfonia, two of its own violinists, Paul Barritt and Lesley Hatfield, took the solo parts with aplomb.

A 'London premiere' for Antonio Teixeira's Te Deum followed in the late-night Prom. In fact the Sixteen's recording has already put this 18th-century curiosity from Portugal into circulation, but that could not anticipate the impact of its 20-part choruses in the space of the Albert Hall. For an hour and a half they alternated with eight soloists who sang florid displays and, especially, duets that recalled the deliberately 'archaic' Mozart of the C minor Mass.

Teixeira's skill lies in the resourceful handling of textures and assembling of forces, so that you are never left to wonder about the variety of his short-term invention. Even as this performance, conducted by Harry Christophers, kept the pace fluent and ungrandiose, the music's visionary power blazed out unimpeded. Daring, again, won the day.