Charities Philharmonia/Michael Alexander Young

Debussy, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff

St John's Smith Square, 2 June 2007 4 stars


The players of the Charities Philharmonia, formed in 2006, are young, gifted and dedicated.

It was no mean feat to deliver a demanding orchestral programme in such sweltering heat as they were faced with on this day. Yet not only did they deliver the music, they also provided high quality entertainment to their appreciative audience.

Debussy composed the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune as the first piece of his intended triptych while working on his opera Pelléas and Mélisande. However, the rest of the triptych did not materialise and the Prélude became Debussy's first purely symphonic work. It was based on a poem by the symbolist poet Stéphan Mallarmé. According to a note in the work's original edition, the music is a free illustration of Mallarmé's beautiful poem; it describes the successive scenes during which the Faun wanders around in the heat of the afternoon while full of dreams and wishes.

Conductor Michael Alexander Young and his players caught the mood of Debussy's impressionist masterpiece to perfection. The all-important sensitive dynamics of the score were meticulously observed, thus helping to portray the changing moods of the Faun. Woodwind solos are particularly important in this score and the orchestra's woodwind players excelled. Horns and clarinets were excellent throughout, both in solos and in ensembles, and mention must be made of the opening flute solo as well as the flute ensembles and the harp. Young, appropriately for this score, kept his conducting movements to the minimum.

The second piece on the programme, Stravinsky's Suite from The Firebird was a good choice to follow Debussy's Faun. The slow first movement, the Introduction, could have been a continuation of the Faun's dreams even though in a dark sinister mood. We meet the world of the evil King Kashchei, first introduced by muted double basses and cellos, then joined by muted violas. Shortly the rest of the large orchestra joins and sparkles in the Variation of the Firebird. The transition was masterfully done (Stravinsky does not leave much time for the change); indeed, the art of transition was the hallmark of Young's conducting throughout the whole concert. The clarinet soloist astonished in this variation, as she did during the rest of the evening. The brass had a chance to excel in the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei and the all-important bassoon solo in the Berceuse was excellent, while the beautifully-delivered opening horn solo in the Finale managed to bring tears to my eyes. From the horn's dolce solo, Young structured a masterful build-up to the powerful and majestic conclusion of the piece.

After the interval, the orchestra played Rachmaninoff's longest concert work, namely his Second Symphony; thus the Russian theme continued. The more than sixty minute-long composition offers a true challenge to all players of the large orchestra as well as to the conductor. On one hand the composition relays a journey between several moods, while on the other it is a highly polyphonic structured work. Young's interpretation, carefully observing the transitions between the various moods, told the story of the journey while also bringing out all the details of polyphony. There could be no doubt in the listeners' minds where the fugue entries in the string section occurred, and the Glockenspiel solo triumphed because the rest of the orchestra was kept down at that point. The strings, particularly the violins, had plenty of opportunities to sing on their instruments (and they did so beautifully) and the viola section delighted with their long exposed passage in the first movement. The cor anglais and bass clarinet contributed expertly to the whole. Young's tempi were excellent and the entire orchestra responded splendidly to his direction.

There were a few minor blemishes, as it is inevitable in such a long work. But it was an uplifting evening, for performers and audience alike. May Michael Alexander Young and his orchestra continue their work for a long time to come.

By Agnes Kory