It’s always so touching when performers remember their manners, but Sinfonia, Berio’s collage of music and literary texts, forces them to. At the end of the third movement the speaker pointedly thanks the conductor, and in this case he fully deserved it. Standing in for an indisposed Semyon Bychkov, Vasily Petrenko drew a sizzling performance from the European Union Youth Orchestra at Tuesday night’s Prom – all the more impressive considering the challenge they had on their hands.
Premiered in the 1960s, Sinfonia and Shostakovich’s Symphony No 4 in C minor, Op 43 have a number of features in common: both call for huge orchestras; both channel the influence of Mahler; both are technically savage, manically unpredictable, a furious mish-mash of elements that leave you in need of a lie-down. And yet they are so different.
Sinfonia, unlike the Symphony, could be described as “fun”. Keeping track of its musical quotations from Mahler, Berg and Ravel, among others, is a tricky business. And following its confection of texts, including those of Samuel Beckett and Claude Lévi-Strauss, is even more of a headache. Listening to several conversations at once would probably be less taxing. But that is why this piece has so much humour and verve, even if the first, second, fourth and fifth movements all sound like side orders to the Third. Together with the amplified London Voices, the EUYO grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, with compelling results.
The same approach paid dividends in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, although here the overall impact was that of darkness and dread. It is sad that this 1936 piece had to wait until almost a decade after Stalin’s death for its premiere. It brims with imagination. But between its various motifs and emotional extremes, getting a handle on its structure can be hard work. So it is a credit to Petrenko that he wove its characteristics into a clear shape without compromising on intensity. At times the first movement took the breath away, its furious string passages spat out like machinegun fire, while the third made the most of the players’ versatility.
After giving the climax their all and then some, they dropped down to less than a whisper for the conclusion. The effect, against the chilling backdrop of the celesta, was shattering.