One Prom + two oddball 20th century symphonies = a strangely satisfying experience, especially when in the hands of a youth orchestra, evidently open to the technical challenges and quirkiness of this relatively rare concert material.

The evening kicked off with the cavalcade of avant gardisms and musical quotes that is the Sinfonia by Luciano Berio. Composed in 1968-69 it caused a stir when it was first performed and has remained the composer's most performed large scale work. It is a virtuoso work, mixing together complex orchestral sonorities with eight amplified voices (originally the perky Swingle Singers) and other amplified instruments. Starting relatively simply in a 1960s avant garde idiom, it starts to jazz up in the third movement where Berio enlists the help of a myriad of other composer from Beethoven to Boulez, taking in Mahler (the scherzo of Second Symphony being the star of the show), Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Richard Strauss and Berg, to name but a few. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett are in the mix too. The resulting collage is by turns entertaining, disturbing and moving.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

In this performance the European Union Youth Orchestra and London Voices, marshalled by Vasily Petrenko, made just the right impact in the third movement, with the young players clearly relishing the mayhem. Away from the high jinx of this movement, the rest of the piece uses a more conventionally modernist musical language, which was equally convincing in this performance. The highly theatrical dialogue/singing, which mostly dominates the textures, was delivered with gusto by London Voices, surpassing The Swingle Singers in their dramatic impact.

This is a piece primarily remembered for its extravagant moments but, hearing it anew in this concert, it came across as a work of depth and emotional power, seeming to capture many of the political concerns of the late 1960s, which are still of concern in our own time.

The same could be said of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.4 in C minor from 1935. Composed at a time of crisis for the composer and when Russia was suffering the first horrors of Stalin’s regime, it sees the composer at his most audacious and experimental. He withdrew the symphony before the planned first performance in 1936 for fear of the consequences for him and the performers. The actual first performance didn’t take place until 1961 and proved to be a critical success.

This is music unfettered by concerns about placating anyone or disguising its message. Its apparently anarchic structure reflected the composer's true feelings about the ugliness of life in Soviet Russia at the time. As a result, the work rages and veers from one extreme to another and at times seems quite deranged. However there is a strong guiding hand behind all this and there is an emotional core that ultimately creates a sense of resolution at the end of the work.

This was a splendidly committed performance of this troubled work, played for all its worth, its bewildering extremes given free rein. The EUYO was clearly excited by the work and Petrenko controlled this enthusiasm just enough to keep the orchestra on track technically, while not trying to impose any conventional structure on the huge outer movements, allowing the internal logic to work on its own terms. There were some splendid woodwind and brass solos, brilliantly characterising the quieter passages, notably from Nikolaj Henriques on bassoon and Soteris Chrysostomou on trombone.

Petrenko certainly drew out the Mahlerian influence, particularly in the last movement, which actually sounds more like parody than a tribute. By the end, with its eerie clattering stillness, you were left in no doubt that this is an extraordinary symphonic statement and one that in its scope and ambition the composer, despite all the popularity of his later works, was rarely able to equal.