Proms: Youth movements

NATIONAL YOUTH ORCHESTRA ROYAL ALBERT HALL

IT WOULD be nice to think that advances in our musical education system have enabled our "young persons" to show us around the orchestra for a change. But we know better. Still, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain continues to flourish, and Benjamin Britten's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell - better known as his Young Person's Guide - made for a timely gesture of defiance at the start of Saturday's Prom. We will prevail, it said. Who's guiding whom now?

Well, Mstislav Rostropovich, on this occasion, though such was his ponderous and circumspect direction of this showiest of curtain-raisers that I'm not entirely sure that the "little blighters" (as Britten might have referred to them) might not have been better off finding their own way round the exhibit. True, there's not necessarily a whole lot of safety in these kind of numbers. Most of the winds were in multiples of seven. That's a lot of bulk to shift. Purcell's splendid theme bowed in like an overly corpulent knight of the realm, groaning under the sheer weight of his livery. Would he ever make it to (leave alone through) the fugue, I wondered? And yet there was sufficient soloistic talent on display here to have made more of the individual variations if only Rostropovich had let them run with the ball. The trombones and tubas, for instance, sounded as if they were gridlocked somewhere in the vicinity of Valhalla.

Earthly delights (after Hieronymus Bosch) were of more pressing concern, though, in the world premiere of Michael Berkeley's Prom commission The Garden of Earthly Delights. Innocence (the Garden of Eden), experience (Carnal Knowledge), and retribution (Hell) come as a package, say Bosch and Berkeley (take note, members of the NYO). So all is not as it first seems in the diaphanous "pleasure dome" that is Berkeley's orchestral superstructure. The hot, breathy growl of the cuica (a percussion instrument otherwise known as the "lion's roar"), the snap, crackle, and pop of percussion, the far-flung voices of violin, soprano saxophone and trombone, subvert, violate, and corrupt from on stage and around the hall. The ceremony of innocence is under fire from the irresistible force of nature in all its consonance and dissonance. Berkeley's big-hearted lyricism is always, for me, the spiritual core of his music, but the relish with which it is corrupted - as in the raunchy, Varese-like dance at the climax of the piece - shows him in touch with his animal instincts. Earthly Delights does not ultimately pay off as satisfyingly as did its predecessor The Secret Garden, where the secret was so spectacularly "outed" at the close, but it's part of a continuing process which finds him writing as he wants to write, and with greater spontaneity.

Rostropovich was again somewhat feeling his way through the thickets of this unfamiliar garden. Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony was another matter. Suddenly he was the hot line to the composer. From the murmur of despondency at the start, through the shrill dementia (eight clarinets stridently assertive) of the scherzo - a glimpse of Stalin's screaming skull through the firestorm - to the jubilant self-assertion of the close, this was terrifically mature work from the NYO. Significantly, it was the introspection that stayed with you: the two clarinets, for instance, so tentatively, heart-breakingly conveying desolation in the aftermath of the first movement's great upheaval.

A greater upheaval ensued the following night. Prokofiev's Cantata on the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution was conceived (and realised) as a massive vote of confidence in the communist system. To Stalin - from Russia with love. His words, and those of Marx and Lenin, are the emotive backbone of the piece. Irony of ironies, though, the Committee for Artistic Affairs declared it "unworthy of performance". Stalin and his cronies liked the words but not the tunes. And yet these are tunes of glory, and some. And on Sunday Mark Elder, the BBC Symphony, BBC Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia Chorus, and more brass than you could shake a stick at (a full-blown military band, no less, amid the arena promenaders) redefined the term "socialist realism". Like all good revolutionaries, they came out singing, they came with their own accordion band in tow, they came armed (gunfire from the gallery). Lenin himself (well, Gerard McBurney in a flat cap, in fact) screamed encouragement through a megaphone.

The Committee were right about this piece (but for the wrong reasons). It's an affray, it's an affront, it's crude, it's corny - but it's an event. And where else would anyone take this much trouble over it? You've got it.

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