On the face of it, the National Youth Orchestra of Wales’s concert of Smetana, Richard Strauss and Shostakovich looked like safe programming. Yet for young musicians whose orchestral involvement has been limited by the disruptions of the pandemic, nothing is safe or straightforward. And given that the Strauss selection was his Four Last Songs – mostly concerned with reflections on the end of life – and that Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony dates from the Stalin era with all the ominous resonances of Russia now, these youngsters would have been getting to grips not simply with the music’s technical demands but also with much grittier lessons about humanity and history.
St David’s Hall was the culmination of a four-concert tour across Wales with conductor Carlo Rizzi, and there was a distinct sense that the experience of having played in such different venues in Lampeter, Bangor and Pembrokeshire’s St David’s Cathedral now found the orchestra in peak performance mode and revelling in it. In Smetana’s symphonic poem from Má Vlast, the rippling sources of the Vltava had an easy flow, progressing naturally to the tumultuous rush of the St John’s rapids, part of the composer’s initial inspiration.
Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn was the soloist in the Strauss songs, which, coincidentally, featured in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s Proms concert the same night. Llewellyn’s voice was evenly modulated throughout her range and the glow of her sound was often magical. Rizzi coaxed nuances of colour from his musicians to offer a most sympathetic accompaniment, with some finely phrased horn and violin solos in September and Frühling. Llewellyn was at her most radiant in the final song, Im Abendrot, and the instrumental postlude with its gradual diminishing of the evening haze was particularly evocative.
Rizzi’s credentials as an opera conductor came into play in the Shostakovich, underlining the symphony’s intrinsic drama – achieving passages of chilling stillness and acute tension – and its lyricism. His players, just 90 strong, rose nobly to the work’s considerable challenges, the brass section standing out. At the work’s first performance in Leningrad, the audience shed tears in the Largo movement and clapped for half an hour at the end. The response here was an emotional standing ovation.