wed 21/02/2024

Prom 28: Rangwanasha, National Youth Orchestra, Prieto review - playing, and singing, with a swing | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 28: Rangwanasha, National Youth Orchestra, Prieto review - playing, and singing, with a swing

Prom 28: Rangwanasha, National Youth Orchestra, Prieto review - playing, and singing, with a swing

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha soars in Strauss, Hindemith effervesces, encores blaze

Clouds of glory: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, the NYO and conductor Carlos Miguel PrietoAll images by Mark Allan

Programming works from the same decade – in this case the 1940s – can reveal fascinating contrasts: what an impressive gulf, for instance, between two masterpieces by Hindemith and Strauss in this first half, and what sensitivity to very different styles from the NYOGB under Carlos Miguel Prieto. Be careful what you choose as the big symphony, though. I’d always had my doubts about Copland’s Third, and though it couldn’t have been more compellingly lit and shaped, it paled by comparison.

Let’s get the elephant in the Royal Albert Hall room out first, for in every other respect, encores rich in singing and swinging included, this was vintage NYO territory. The Copland showcased the massed and brilliant brass to perfection, above all in the spinning-out of the famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” shaping the identity of the finale. But this is no American colossus. Weirdly, its padding and lack, for the most part, of really striking ideas make it sound oddly like a Soviet Socialist Realist work: the kind Prokofiev and Shostakovich were supposed to write around the same time, but obviated with daring and brilliance. A great symphony composed in America, and dedicated to Copland’s commissioner, Serge Koussevitzky at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was premiered not long before: Czech refugee Martinů’s Third, a flamethrower in its progress from darkness to light. NYO PromStill, this much less deeply-felt Third had the best possible argument as Prieto, a lithe mover, gave it what sense of direction, syncopated dancing and dynamic contrast he could. Admittedly Hindemith in his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber – cumbersome title for so sparkling and frequently witty a showpiece – didn’t have to write his own themes, but what dazzling developments of much more tractable material. From the start the young musicians relished its trills, thrills, shrieks and tattoos, details always gleaming in the rich orchestration. Who doesn’t love the fun and games Hindemith has with the March from Weber's incidental music to Gozzi's Turandot? Every department shone here, but there was totally spectacular work from the first of the evening’s two timpanists, Sana Abu-Jabir. Melancholy wind illuminated the third movement, and the brass’s victory parade in this apotheosis was so much more succinct than in Copland's.

Glorious South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, who sprang fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus during her years as a Royal Opera Jette Parker Young Artist, could have won the 2021 Cardiff Singer of the World – I don’t say should, because there were three other equally remarkable finalists that year – with her performance of Elisabetta’s big aria in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Last Proms, she sealed the triumph under Oramo in Verdi's Requiem. We had a glimpse of her Strauss in Cardiff too, but here, in the complete Four Last Songs, was proof that she’s ideal in this repertoire too: clear of text (good rolling rs) and mood, but above all soaring with a seemingly effortless radiance, without which the composer’s swansong would be worthless. That was all the more impressive from a distance, though I can’t wait to listen on Radio 3. Four Last Songs at the PromsPrieto, whether at Rangwanasha’s urging or not, chose slower tempi than the norm; the result, given very special dynamic levels and incredible subtlety from the young players, was hypnotic rather than torpid. A unique inwardness graced “September”: Barenboim’s wisdom that you make the Albert Hall audience lean in to you rather than push outwards was embodied here, and rounded off by as exquisite a horn solo as any I’ve heard in this work from 18-year-old Daniel Hibbert. And when leader Isabell Karlsson cued the spirit-soaring of “Beim Schlafengehen” (“Going to Sleep”), Rangwanasha took it even further: how could one not be most-eyed in this, or the ravishing epilogue with flute larks transfigured into piccolos?

What would the encore be? Strauss’s “Morgen”? No; it was a total surprise, "because you’ve been so good”, Rangwanasha told the audience and absolutely glorious. Fabulous Errolyn Wallen’s arrangement for choir, selected players and soloist of “The whole world in his hands” kept the eyes teary and the goosebumps going. The NYO players have got used to singing too – their Shostakovich 11 punctuated by the revolutionary songs featuring in it will never be forgotten – and this time they learned Xhosa too, while Rangwanasha delivered and swooningly ornamented the familiar text. Wallen, in the audience, could not have looked more excited. Post-spiritual at the PromsCap that? Well, the players equalled it at the end of the concert. And what more apt to cap the official 1940s programme than a spectacular arrangement of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”, immortalized in 1937 (OK, not quite 40s but in the zone) by Benny Goodman, with so many jamming solos encouraging the young players’ improvisatory skills. Couldn’t hear all of them so well in the hall, but I’ve just listened again on the radio. Since the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra, as it then was, twirled and stomped around the stage in 2007, the Proms has never been quite the scene. And each new group of young musicians wins the right to do the same. So don’t miss this very special concert when it hits the TV screen.

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