When I started going to the Proms some 15 years ago, there seemed to be a gulf in quality between the playing of some of the regional British ensembles whose appearances were peppered throughout season and the big international orchestras who rolled in at the end. These days, I don’t hear such a gap, and I wonder if the standard of playing hasn’t improved across the board. I recently heard a segment from a recording made in the late 1980s that seemed to confirm this suspicion.
Around 30 years ago, Vladimir Ashkenazy began a series of Shostakovich recordings with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Fourth Symphony was an early entry in that series: it’s a beast and surely enough to give musicians sleepless nights, but some segments of the recording were so poorly played that I struggle to understand why it was ever issued. Indeed, when Decca collected Ashkenazy’s eventual cycle on CD about a decade ago, the original recording of the Fourth was replaced with a new one with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. (It’s only fair to say that I’ve heard the RPO’s playing match that of any of the world’s great orchestras, so perhaps unfamiliarity with the music or some other factor was to blame)
It is, then, something of a sign of the times that a remarkable youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic, gives a really bracing performance on Youtube. There must have been some raised eyebrows when the orchestra programmed the piece, but it’s a great success – just listen to the frenzied fugue at 15:17. Gripping stuff.
Shostakovich - Symphony No 4