National Youth Orchestra, Jarvi, Barbican Hall

Posted on January 8th, 2011

It was as audacious as it was challenging: a programme to wreak havoc on sensitive dispositions – and because this was the National Youth Orchestra there was something incredibly liberating about the welter of sound that unleashed it. The fabulous anarchy of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite bore down on us with three tubas, extra horns and trombones bolstering Prokofiev’s already super-sized brass combo. But once the dust had settled and this most exotic confection started displaying its more sensuous nature it was effectively one big smooch for the NYO – and all before the watershed.

With his flowing hair and long black coat, conductor Kristjan Jarvi looked like something out of Twilight. Blood would be shed. But then something extraordinary and rather special happened and a young violinist Tai Murray from Chicago took the stage for the most emotionally wrought and highly strung (so to speak) of all violin concertos – the Alban Berg. Supremely difficult and exposed, not just for the soloist but for the entire orchestra (now significantly reduced), the soloist’s bare and vulnerable arpeggios were soon echoed in a beautiful and fragile double-bass solo. And as “the ceremony of innocence was drowned” (to borrow from Britten’s The Turn of the Screw) these young players individually and collectively stepped up to the plate sensitively to shroud the central performance.

Murray’s playing was extraordinarily “aware”, her expressive face as well as her sound showing how finely balanced this piece is between contentment and catastrophe. Rage was palpable in the frantic assault of the second movement, choking dissonances forged over multiple strings, but more affecting still was the heartbreaking desolation of the soloist plucking hopefully at the open strings from the start of the piece whilst simultaneously bowing her own lament.

And Murray was followed by yet another white-knuckle ride as Stewart Goodyear took us to hell and back with his powerhouse rendition of Liszt’s Totentanz. Everything the demonic Abbé flung at him he flung back at us in articulation so precise and steely that I began to wonder if there was an exorcist on call just in case.

And then Janacek showed the devil the door with the blistering fanfares of his Sinfonietta suggesting a healthy future for brass playing in this country. This was a pretty tall order at the close of so taxing an evening but barring a few tentative pages lips and bow arms held out impressively.

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