The huge forces of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain filled the stage at Bridgewater Hall for the first of its 2018 concerts, to be repeated in Nottingham and London. The first work was Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake, a magical miniature tone poem described as “a fairy tale scene” in which the orchestra depicts a peaceful lake with gentle movement of the water with only occasional suggestions of disturbance to the tranquillity. The huge orchestra (with seven in each woodwind group) often played very quietly, conductor Sir Mark Elder, himself once a member of this orchestra, shaping  the performance beautifully as if to suggest the great power of the water even at its calmest.

The first few notes of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice continued the mysterious atmosphere of The Enchanted Lake but the story of Dukas’ familiar piece soon got going with snatches of the most prominent melody leading to the exuberant representation of the hapless apprentice and the chaos he creates. Special mention must be made of the orchestra’s fine bassoonists and contra-bassoonists who brought the magical broomstick to life. This performance brought out the humour of the piece. The rhythmic drive was exhilarating and the crisp ensemble playing was first-rate.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók’s only opera, is an ambitious choice for any orchestra (or indeed opera house). There are only two singers and the only action is the opening of a series of doors which reveal different scenes behind them. It can be hard to create a performance that does justice to the wonderful music, but this production (directed by Daisy Evans) did just that. The NYO was joined by bass-baritone Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham as Judith, Bluebeard’s new wife (stepping in at short notice for Claudia Mahnke). The spoken prologue was given in English by four NYO actors. The singers performed in Hungarian. With a few gestures as well as their voices they brought out the relationship between their two characters. Robert Hayward’s Bluebeard was stern and dominating, Rinat Shaham’s Judith expressive and vulnerable but sometimes assertive. Sir Mark and the orchestra put their hands over their faces during the prologue and at the end which was an extraordinarily effective way of involving everyone in the drama.

A screen behind the orchestra gave a translation of the text and also atmospheric pictures of the doors that are opened in the course of the opera.  A strip of lighting snaked round the front of the stage and through the orchestra with a different colour for the light coming from each of the doors that are opened. Inevitably they turned to red as Judith realised that the weapons, jewels and garden were all soaked in blood. In addition, lights over the players’ desks sparkled in the “lake of tears” scene.

The star of the show, however, was the orchestra, representing perhaps the castle itself. The players conjured up the varying moods of the work and the scenes behind each door. They reflected the tension between the two protagonists and their inner torments. They created the sinister atmosphere of this dark tale. A highlight was the opening of the fifth door when Judith sees Bluebeard’s kingdom in a blaze of light. The full orchestra was joined by the organ in a blaze of light, contrasting with Judith’s brief unaccompanied solos. Here the actors who had been sitting at the side of the stage rose as if to look out at the stunning sight. It was utterly thrilling. The ending too was remarkable with the actors taking the part of Bluebeard’s former wives and urging Judith to join them. The audience was evidently stunned: the silence at the end lasted for several seconds before the applause started.

My only misgiving about this performance was that sometimes the orchestra overpowered Rinat Shaham’s Judith. From my seat (on Bluebeard’s side of the hall) there was no such difficulty hearing Robert Hayward's powerful voice. The playing of the orchestra was excellent throughout. No allowances needed to be made for the age of the players. This was an excellent concert by any standards. What an opportunity for these gifted and hard-working young musicians! In hands such as theirs, the future of orchestral music is assured.