There are times when an imperfect performance can transcend its shortcomings and attain something that, paradoxically, comes close to perfection. This was the situation that ultimately prevailed in yesterday afternoon’s Symphony Hall concert given by the CBSO Youth Orchestra.

Andrew Gourlay © Johan Persson
Andrew Gourlay
© Johan Persson

Not, though, in the opening work on the programme, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2. From start to end, almost everything about it felt uncomfortable. Prokofiev’s endless reworking of the piece might have been partly to blame. Such a mature but meandering concerto! It’s easy to believe that each successive alteration to (and, eventually, reconstruction of) the piece introduced to it a new viewpoint and layer of inscrutability. It was certainly true that the orchestra and conductor Andrew Gourlay often seemed baffled with regard to its structure, character and emphases. There was the distinct sense of a “piano concerto by numbers”, of individual instrumentalists carefully playing notes written out on bits of paper rather than a cohesive musical entity. Even in the concerto’s most rip-roaring episodes of abandon the orchestra seemed to be defining adrenaline rather than actively demonstrating it.

This was reinforced by the complete contrast in soloist Lauren Zhang, who though she cut a timid figure on entering the stage turned into a small-scale ball of fire as soon as her fingers touched the keyboard. For her, everything about the concerto was certain and unequivocal, effortlessly slip-sliding through the work’s contorted twists between romanticism and regularity, tenderness and obliquity. The result of these divergent attitudes towards the piece was an almost complete disconnect, such that the orchestra regularly sounded as if they were, at best, merely accompanying a soloist whose actions they didn’t really comprehend – in the process, at times, audibly struggling to keep up. Though Zhang’s performance was an outstanding cascade of the most liberated virtuosity, it wasn’t enough to cohere the work as a whole.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was an entirely different matter. We’ve become so used to the work’s mythos – both the perpetually-lauded innovative nature of its musical material as well as its 1913 first performance audience punch-up legend – that it can be easy to take as read or even lose sight of its sheer radicality. Not so here. What made the performance so spellbinding was the CBSO Youth Orchestra’s combination of enthusiasm and struggle. Unlike some – perhaps many – renditions of this piece, at no point did its music sound easy or well-drilled; instead, it was precarious, edgy, outrageous, even somewhat rude.

Thus the wind-focused opening of The Adoration of the Earth became a deliciously stodgy exercise in organised chaos, a quality that would permeate much of what would ensue. Gourlay took the increasingly motoric episodes that followed at an impressively fearless pace, and while there were some casualties along the way the intensity and power generated by the orchestra more than made up for it. In fact, notwithstanding some genuinely gorgeous sequences – particularly the introduction to The Sacrifice – it was this very roughness at the music’s edges, mixing magic with malevolence, that enabled the performance to transcend its imperfections and transform them into a virtue. Stravinsky’s driving pulses became uncomfortably irregular quasi-robotic spasms, hammered into place by almost histrionic blows from the percussion. The Rite’s complex harmonic language became a tapestry of almost aggressively in-your-face dissonance so harsh it was practically eye-watering. And the whole thing turned into a carnival in the climactic Sacrificial Dance, Gourlay’s gyrating body on the podium eliciting flamboyant levels of poise and swagger from the orchestra.

Spectacular, shocking and above all blisteringly effective, one can only imagine the work’s legendary 1913 première must have sounded just like this.

****1