Snape Proms 21: Varèse, Rachmaninov, Copland

Boris Berezovsky; National Youth Orchestra/Antonio Pappano 

Snape Maltings, 26 August 20084stars

Antonio Pappano (credit: Sheila Rock)Hooray for adventurous programming! The three works featured at the twenty-first Snape Prom were all takes on America – by Edgard Varèse, Sergei Rachmaninov and Aaron Copland. And how fascinatingly different they all were – from the atonal Varèse through the lush post-Romanticism of Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto to the broad expanses of Copland's 'native America'. It was a well-planned and wonderfully executed concert.

Soloist in the Rachmaninov was the admirable Boris Berezovsky, whose advocacy of the work (a peculiar hybrid, it must be said) could hardly be faulted. He is a commanding figure at the piano, with hands that encompass those spread chords with ease. His digital control was complete, his sound sharply-focused and secure. He started the work in intense communication with the orchestra, watching the players as alertly as they were listening to him, until the dialogue between piano and orchestra was established. And then he took off, always at ease with the rhythmic pulse of the work and always serenely in charge of the sound world he created. Did he break sweat? Hardly at all: it was a virtuoso performance of which he made light. As a well-deserved encore he played the 1909 piano sketch 'Campanella' by Nicholas Medtner, the original dedicatee of Rachmaninov's Fourth Concerto: it brought the house down.

The concert had opened with Amériques by Varèse, as modern-sounding in performance today as it must have been in the 1920s (we heard the revised version of 1927). As a child growing up in Burgundy, Varèse is said to have been fascinated by the massive architecture of the Romanesque churches he encountered, and the sound world he creates in Amériques has something of cathedral architecture to it. John Cage may have credited Varèse with 'fathering forth noise into 20th century music' but Varèse's own preferred description – organised sound – describes more accurately what we heard on Thursday night. The National Youth Orchestra played the piece as if their young lives depended on it, and their conductor Antonio Pappano conjured up textures of great lucidity and evocative colour. The recurrent siren grated on the ear, as it should, but the interplay between brass, strings and woodwind produced some exciting sounds. Amériques is never likely to be a crowd-pleaser, but conductor and orchestra gave us an eloquent account of an interesting and, despite its sheer volume of sound, mysterious work.

And so, after the interval, out of the big city and into the sunlit plains of Aaron Copland's Third Symphony. Here Pappano worked his proverbial socks off: baton held high, virtually every orchestral entry cued in, dynamic range held in check (almost) and a fluent and persuasive account of an unproblematic work. If there are echoes of Shostakovich in the opening molto moderato, and of Prokoviev in the succeeding allegro molto, the work is nonetheless an all-American canvas of concordant sounds: and the orchestra caught the mood of Copland's elegiac writing beautifully. There was some particularly fine woodwind playing in the third movement andantino. Quibbles? The only ones I had were in that same movement, when the very exposed string writing at the start caught out some of the players and the sound failed to coalesce as it should: and in the opening flourishes of the last movement, the so-called Fanfare for the Common Man, when the brass chording was not quite precise. But these were tiny blemishes on an account of the Copland that was confident, idiomatic, full of joyous music-making and a delight to experience.

So, full marks to Pappano for all the preparation he had clearly done with the players, and full marks to the latter, who gave him a responsive and highly musical account of their collective selves. We nowadays applaud the vision and courage of Daniel Barenboim with his East West Diwan Orchestra and the sheer exuberance of Gustavo Dudamel with the Simon Bolivar Venezuelan Youth Symphony Orchestra, perhaps forgetting that our own National Youth Orchestra has been forging a path towards musical excellence for 60 years. But on evenings such as the twenty-first Snape Prom, from the 13-year-old double bass player to the 19-year-old leader, our own National Youth Orchestra showed that it can hold its own with the best in the business. 

By Mike Reynolds

This concert was repeated at the Proms on Saturday 23 August