Prom 38: European Youth Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis

Brahms: Symphony No 3; Sibelius: Symphony No 5

Royal Albert Hall, 11 August 2007 3.5 stars


There are few more inspiring sights than an orchestra consisting of young players being led by a conductor of great stature. This was especially the case at this Prom with the European Youth Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis because the orchestra's one hundred and forty musicians, aged fourteen to twenty-four, derive from all twenty-seven EU countries (whose flags adorned the back of the Albert Hall's stage). Thus their activities are not merely about making great music together, but taking part in a dialogue that bridges the gaps between cultures and races.

  The repertoire for this concert, which was part of a four-country tour, was conventional but challenging. Even if the players did not always quite bring the focus, interpretation and insight of a great orchestra, that was too much to expect, and they more than made up for their slight deficiencies with their evident enthusiasm and respect both for Davis and the music they were performing.

  Brahms's Tragic Overture, Op. 81, was a bold and confident start. A rather extraordinary piece, the overture begins with a haunting modal theme that doesn't return according to the traditional procedure of sonata form. The oboe solo was phrased with superlative sensitivity, while the horn calls, pizzicato cello section and trombone theme were outstandingly secure. The danger of the work eluded the players initially, but the rising chromatic figure in the brass, spelling doom, led to a suitably loud and brusque ending.  

Sensitivity again won the day over flair in the performance of Brahms's Third Symphony, but it was none the worse for that on the whole. The clarinet and bassoon duet near the opening of the first movement showcased two especially able young players (though the programme lamentably fails to indicate the leaders of each section for each piece) while the strings and horns communicated the pastoral character of most of the movement with impressive urbanity.  The second movement was intensely beautiful, the woodwinds' tranquillo chorale theme leading the music while the strings provided sympathetically subdued accompaniment, and the use of subtle dynamic contrasts made for a strikingly elegiac third movement. Most imposing of all was the finale, which Davis took at a fast and furious tempo that never overtaxed the players' abilities.  

After the interval came Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. A labour of love for the composer, it underwent several major revisions before reaching its final form, and at times during this performance it was difficult not to feel that the piece is rather sprawling. Although Davis worked hard to keep the orchestra fired up, there was a lack of colour about some aspects of the playing that ultimately left the piece undercooked.  

Nevertheless, there was much to admire in this often stirring performance. The beginning of the first movement, for instance, showed off the players' ensemble skills: securely-intoned horn calls were underpinned by very gentle timpani tremolos while woodwinds added occasional interjections. The two clarinettists made for an exciting duet, while the detailed, nuanced phrasing of the difficult long bassoon solo was simply outstanding. For me, the movement lost focus when the scherzo section kicked in; only during the very final pages did the excitement return, thanks to thrilling brass fanfares.

  It was the same story with the rest of the symphony. The second movement was rousing when the violins were playing their rapid tremolandi and the horns playing the iconic section in thirds, but less so during the folk-music-inspired music (though the violin's floating lyricism when the theme first emerged was exquisitely executed). The 'Swan Hymn' of the final movement was also beautiful, but I felt that the lack of purpose and co-ordination slightly undermined the six disparate chords at the symphony's close.

  On the whole, though, the impression was of a highly accomplished ensemble of players, several of whom promise to be outstanding professionals in the future, and Davis' unfailing inspiration of and confidence in them made for an enjoyable occasion.

By Dominic McHugh