Proms review: NYO / Norrington

National Youth Orchestra/ Norrington
Royal Albert Hall, London****

Is the tale of a drug addict's obsessive passion for a coquette a suitable subject for a celebration of the Queen Mother's 100th birthday? Some might say not - but that's the starting point of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, with which the NYO and Roger Norrington chose to close their musical tribute to the orchestra's patron.

The pomp and pageantry of royalty was dealt with before the interval with Walton's Crown Imperial (written for the 1937 coronation), followed by Handel's Fireworks Music and Elgar's Cockaigne, their majesty emphasised by the NYO's colossal forces, with doubled and trebled woodwind parts, immense choirs of brass, eight harps and vast batteries of percussion. The sheer sumptuousness of it all is mightily impressive, as is the delicacy which Norrington teases out of such an enormous orchestra in passages like the Bourée from the Fireworks Music, where he gets the NYO woodwind to play with the transparency of a period band. Only in Cockaigne, which needs passion as well as grandeur, did the tension slip a bit, though Norrington tellingly emphasises the Straussian warmth of the orchestration, and the playing was glorious.

His rapport with the NYO was tangible throughout the evening, nowhere more so than in Berlioz's opium-drenched phantasmagoria. Norrington is well known for his period-instrument performances of the Fantastique, but even when using large-scale conventional forces, his interpretation is equally riveting, equally revelatory. The opening unfurls into a fever of genuine delirium, then assumes an unstable macho swagger once the druggy hero meets his beloved. The ballroom sequence is dazzling, an opalescent swirl of colour, helped infinitely by the NYO's eight harps (Berlioz wanted six - most conductors settle for two).

Norrington takes the March to the Scaffold much slower than most and the impression is of a heavy tumbrel, processing relentlessly to the guillotine. The finale is devastating, with the woodwind choirs screaming, which is obscene in the extreme. Norrington clearly enjoyed every second of it. So did the players, and when it was over the audience went wild, the ovation hugely deserved.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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