CBSO Youth Orchestra
Arts Centre, University of Warwick
* * * *
Review by Christopher Morley
The CBSO's four-year IgorFest, exploring every note composed by Stravinsky, has regrettably thrown up the odd dud, raising questions about the necessity and validity of the project.
But its latest instalment was launched brilliantly on Saturday with a vibrant, earthy performance from the Moscow-based Pokrovsky Ensemble, taking an enthusiastic audience through the songs and dances which punctuate a Russian village wedding.
Amazing vocal techniques were on display here, as well as vivid costuming and body-language. And this delightful (if slightly over-long) offering created an illuminating context for the performance of Les Noces which followed.
Western listeners tend to regard this extraordinary work as a colourful piece of gossipy, posturing folklore, but here, with the jaw-dropping collaboration of the Pokrovskys (singing from memory, let alone their involving interaction of movement and gesture), plus the enlightenment they had just brought us, it emerged as something both comic and sacramental, affectionate in its portrayal of a young couple's journey to the marriage-bed.
Valiant percussionists from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, plus hard-working pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Kirill Gerstein, delivered a zippy, forward-moving account, fantastically paced and spaced, under the streamlined conducting of Thomas Ades. The CBSO now onstage, Sakari Oramo took over the baton for the second half, presiding over a dramatic, cutting reading of Stravinsky's hybrid oratorio-opera Oedipus Rex. This is an enigmatic piece, encompassing so many styles. It is an obvious influence on Poulenc's Les Carmelites, but also looks back to the 17th-century Venetians Stravinsky admired so much.
It also has many unpleasant moments, but also brings an ending of great compassion.
Michael Pennington, up aloft beside the organ, was an appropriately ironic Narrator of Jean Cocteau's text, the splendid men of the CBS Chorus projected in wonderfully pungent Latin, and the vocal soloists, headed by Glenn Winslade's intense Oedipus and Ekaterina Gubanova's smokily rich, regretful Jocasta, made effective contributions -- as did the CBSO trumpeters in their glittering music.
Sunday afternoon brought immense hope for the future, with the awesomely accomplished CBSO Youth Orchestra adding its estimable contribution to the Stravinsky proceedings.
After just a week of intensive rehearsal, these committed and gifted youngsters produced performances which would put many professional bodies to shame, with crisp articulation, impressively accurate intonation, but, above all, a depth of tone and confidence of phrasing which really denotes an ensemble of the highest class.
And the sense of ensemble was tremendous, with emerging solos of fabulous quality too numerous to mention, though hornist Alison Bach, flautist Adam Powell, clarinettist Suzanne Clare and bassoonist Louisa Denby deserve to be named as representatives of their other gifted young colleagues.
Anthony Bradbury conducted the first half, his witty Greeting Prelude reminding us that this would have been the 50th birthday of the Midland Youth Orchestra which provided the seed-corn for this present remarkable body.
His Boultian baton also secured a gripping reading of Stravinsky's student E-flat Symphony, chockful with influences but also with intimations of future individuality.
The second half, Four Norwegian Moods and the rarely-heard 1911 version of the Firebird Suite, was conducted by Oramo himself, trusting his young charges enough to conjure extremes of dynamics and inspiring them to expressive heights more than they ever thought possible.