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National Youth Orchestra of Wales, St David’s Hall, Cardiff

07 Aug 2023 3 minute read
National Youth Orchestra of Wales

Peter Collins

Almost from the moment Carlo Rizzi walked on stage one sensed that this was going to be an intriguing evening of musical exploration by some of Wales’ most talented musicians.

It was a pleasure to welcome maestro Rizzi, who was music director of Welsh National Opera from 1992 to 2001, back to the concert hall in Cardiff.

The Italian is not a demonstrative or flamboyant conductor. Rather, he has a compact, unfussy conducting technique and a no-nonsense approach to interpreting the music and bringing the best out of his young players. They would certainly have leant a lot from him this season.

Judging by the programme, Rizzi is also a hard taskmaster. In the first half we had Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, while the concert concluded with Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, works that would challenge the most experienced of professional orchestras.

The evening began with an exhuberant performance of Vitava from Ma Vlast, Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s love letter to his homeland.

The music portrays the ebb and flow of the two streams that come together to form the river that runs through Prague. This interpretation had a fresh, youthful feel about it, full of hope and expectation.

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Sublime swansong

There was an abrupt change of mood for the second work in the programme, Richard Strauss’ sublime swansong, Four Last Songs. It was an unusual choice for a youth orchestra to perform, given that three of the four songs are about death.

The orchestra was joined by  soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn for a performance that had depth and  emotional power and insight.

There was a sparkling clarity in her performance of the opening song, Spring, and she captured the autumnal hues of the second song, September, with great feeling and warmth.

Rizzi ensured that the orchestra did not intrude but accompanied her with delicacy and understanding.

As the mood darkened, Llewellyn brought an intensity and radiance to the third song, When Falling Asleep, and an almost transcendental calmness to the final song, At Sunset.

Chill of terror

The resigned acceptance of death expressed in the Four Last Songs can send a chill down the spine. But it is a chill of a different kind that one experiences when listening to Shostakovich’s enigmatic Symphony No 5. It is the chill of terror, or more specifically The Terror of Stalin.

Described by the composer as “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism,” the symphony was composed after Stalin has condemned Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “muddle instead of music” and warned the composer that “it might end badly.”

The moral ambiguities of the symphony are still debated today. The lyricism and heroic tone certainly meet the requirements of the Soviet authorities, but there is a subtext of despair and resistance that suggest Shostakovich was unbowed.

Nobody could expect a youth orchestra to master the complexities of such a challenging work, but this performance by the young musicians under the direction of Carlo Rizzi was certainly impressive. The repeated notes at the end of the symphony suggest a forced celebration, insisting that “our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.”

There was nothing forced in this performance, or in the rapturous reception it received from the audience. Wales is blessed indeed to have musicians of such talent who will ensure that classical music in the nation will continue to thrive.

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