MUSIC / In all but spirit: EDWARD SECKERSON

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The Independent Culture
Glorious John'. Friday's Prom was for him. The Halle were there, of course - they'll always be his orchestra; and the programme had 'Barbirolli' written all over it. Only one thing was missing. The great man's spirituality.

Kent Nagano, the Halle's recently installed music director, is, you might say, a conductor for the high-tech Nineties - cool, calculating, fastidious. He took one of Barbirolli's great signature pieces - Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings - he gave it length, he gave it breadth, he applied all the appropriate rubatos. And still it didn't sing. There was beauty: fragile Negano pianissimi, the excellent first viola indeed 'smiling with a sigh' in his twilit solos. But no emotional depth, no real centre. These notes must breathe from within. You know when they do. It's easy to recognise, just hard to describe.

Negano has been working on the strings: they sound like a section in training, confident, determined (not least in Elgar's 'devil of a fugue'), audibly frayed only in the exposed divisions prior to each big reprise of the tune. The last of those is a great moment. Barbirolli's players could never give him enough bow length. If that is what Negano asked for, then he didn't seem to want it nearly enough.

There are too many short, undernourished notes in his performances. Transparent, open textures are one thing, substance is another. Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra were most effective when flickering, dissipating, on the threshold of silence. But this was never music on the brink of catastrophe. The final Marsch, a terrible parody of every Mahlerian goose step you've ever heard and feared, posed no threat.

Barbirolli premiered Vaughan Williams's 7th Symphony 'Sinfonia Antartica' in 1953. A searching opening theme may promise symphonic intrigue (development, even), but in truth this is movie mood music by any other name - a reworking of the composer's score for Scott of the Antarctic, replete with percussive icicles, wind machine, and sirens on high. It belongs in a space like the Albert Hall. Close your eyes, ignore the heat, and visualise the infinite whiteness. Every glacier should have an Albert Hall organ. Negano had his storyboard well organised. As director and lighting cameraman, he efficiently manoeuvred us through the succession of tracking-shots, zooms and dissolves. Barbirolli would have been encouraged by his orchestra's current showing. I'm not so sure about the conductor.

On Saturday, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain showed us what they've learned this year (courtesy of Lexus, and Williams Holdings Plc): a lot. Mark Wigglesworth was their security and friendly persuader through two of the most demanding scores in the entire repertoire. His fail-safe beat and refined ear were a blessing in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. The lesson here was that soft is sexy; understatement is tantalising. Wigglesworth gave these youngsters space and challenged them to fill it. His flautist might have benefited from a little less in her sensuous dawn solo. But she and her colleagues found all the still centres in Stravinsky's Petrushka. And of course, collective enthusiasm made this the biggest and brightest of Shrovetide Fairs. Enough drummers for a household cavalry, and not one, but three tubas - three dancing bears. Now that's value for money. The NYO is value for money. Our orchestral future begins here. So let's keep pulling strings for them.

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