Dean: Amphitheatre; Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn - Selection; Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

Gubanova, The Australian Youth Orchestra/Elder

Royal Albert Hall, 30 July 2010 4.5 stars

GubanovaIn recent years the Proms has played host to a number of captivating performances from visiting youth orchestras. To a role call that features amongst others the Mahler and the Simón Bolívar can now be added The Australian Youth Orchestra, whose performance this evening with Mark Elder matched the ranks of professional orchestras for interpretative skill, dedication, and poise, whilst exceeding them, even, in passion.

The programme was varied enough to enable the musicians to show off a wide range of technical skill, whilst being cohesive enough at the same time that a sustained depth of feeling could be cultivated throughout the concert, and to great effect.

The opening work tied some strings neatly together; its Australian composer, Brett Dean, was himself the orchestra's principal viola when Elder first conducted the group 25 years ago. The subject of the work itself, meanwhile, as flagged up in its title (Amphitheatre), concerns the physical and metaphysical circumstances of those large Roman theatres which now exist, crumbling, as haunted edifices to a million fallow dreams. One couldn’t help but cast into the future and imagine a similar fate for the Royal Albert, glorious now, but eventually subject to putrefaction like everything else.

The piece delineates its subject matter in two principal themes; the one, the image of the colossal building blocks of the sublime Roman amphitheatres, is a swinging two-chord tattoo that starts out in steaming low brass, and from there moves promiscuously about the orchestra in an unfurling adamantine display. This theme buttresses the work’s first half, but is always shadowed by the second image, that of the ghostly trumpet fanfares that call out on behalf of the past glories of these amphitheatres, rising in strength, but giving way as they must at the close to the crumbling chord ostinato. Dean toys skilfully with the interplay all the way through, marshalling the flicker between then and now with an array of Webernian tone colours and orchestral penumbrae. Most impressive in the performance, apart from the richly realised orchestral effects, was the strong sense of control and purpose that developed over the course of the work's gloaming oration into a revenant pallor that made a spectre of this hall, with its inhabitants leaning close to the musicians in order to understand their fate the better.

Such penumbrae suffused the hall again in the second half, where the extended Moderato first movement of Shostakovich's tenth symphony had these young musicians glowering away, making of the work’s dark casings and its many tiny eruptions an oppressive arc that moved from dusk beginnings, through a striking climax eked out with patience from Elder and composure from the musicians in the long tightening of the screw of the form, to a hopeless dispersal at the close. All this gloaming graduated into a wicked unleashing of bite in the infamous 'Stalin' Scherzo, where even a slightly overeager timpanist (an otherwise authoritative Brent Miller) couldn't derail Elder's tightly oiled disaster-machine.

The Allegretto featured impressive solos from woodwind and horns, though the soloist for the latter couldn't avoid a little tentativeness creeping in at some crucial points when re-entering the rich symbol array. The unity of purpose across the orchestra here and elsewhere made for stunning listening; the collective exit from the Scherzo drew gasps from the crowd, whilst the fused carriage of strings consistently allowed a piercing sense of momentum that is rare even in the best orchestras in the world. The brass section's near faultless intonation, allied at all times to a dynamic and propulsive sense of form, should not go by without remark either.

I had to grow into the Mahler performed before the break, particularly its soloist, Ekaterina Gubanova. From somewhat faltering (and, as if we could ever avoid it in this hall, inaudible) beginnings, though, Gubanova built a rich account full of finely pointed phrases and irresistible touches of humour. Her yodelling in the second of the six Wunderhorn selections, 'Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht', was slack of line and shaky in intonation, but her dual characterisations in the two dialogue numbers 'Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen' (where a little immaturity showed in a rushed cadence in the band) and the much lighter 'Verlone Müh', were wonderful, lilting here, pleading there, in the centre of the line and luxuriant in tone always. The orchestra was as deliberate and as attentive to the painstaking Elder here as elsewhere, producing effects of irony, pathos, humour, and, in the final number, 'Urlicht', serenity, that were utterly apposite to Mahler. The warm and sustained reception given these musicians at the end, after a radiant encore of 'You'll Never Walk Alone', was thoroughly deserved.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Ekaterina Gubanova

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