The National Youth Orchestra of Wales has recorded the Mathias Celtic Dances before. That was in the mid-1970s during the remarkable 23-year term of Arthur Davison as the orchestra’s conductor. Indeed, those were among the true glory days of this, the longest-running youth orchestra in the world. Davison had a special rapport with his young players which was every bit as tangible on vinyl (as it was then) as in the flesh. A lot of water has flown down the Taff since then and, by the very nature of the orchestra, none of the current membership ever played in the orchestra under Davison; and many were not even born when he was at the helm. What the NYOW hasn’t lost in those intervening decades is its utterly professional sound. There isn’t a weak link; barely a hint of dubious wind intonation, hardly a single violin out of sync, not a misjudged brass note to be heard, and while the Divine Art engineers may have done some cosmetic surgery, the last time I heard it live (last summer) it sounded every bit as polished and virtually flawless as it does on this richly recorded CD.
In fact, the NYOW is probably collectively better now than ever it was before; such is life, that standards are continually being pushed up and what we hear from these 2008 players would have shamed even the LSO a few decades back. It certainly has a load of fun in the Mathias. Not, possibly, his most demanding work, but one which really deserves a hearing well beyond the Celtic fringes of Europe. Jolly tunes, catchy rhythms and plenty of colourful orchestral effects, this is just the kind of thing young musicians like to get their teeth into (provided there’s something more challenging to keep the brain active) and they play it here with great verve and spirit.
Why, then, do I still prefer Davison’s 33-year-old recording? And why do I find the Vaughan Williams London Symphony so dispiriting on this disc? The answer, sadly, lies fairly and squarely at the door of Owain Arwel Hughes, whose readings are pedestrian and uninspired. He seems merely content to keep things together – which he does exceedingly well – and if, during his six years with the NYOW, he has built up a good rapport with the players, it doesn’t communicate itself through this recording. Hughes’s tempos are ponderous, climaxes leaden and those matchless moments of Vaughan Williams in true pastoral vein (in which the outstanding cor anglais and oboe players reveal amazing potential) pass by barely unnoticed. Perhaps most disappointing is the harp’s Westminster chimes at 7’39” in the final movement and the following moment of fluttering woodwind. Where’s the magic? Where’s the sense of misty mystery? In the austere company this disc shares in the catalogues, this interpretation does not stand up very well at all.
We might be tempted to say that this is a pretty good job considering the age and inexperience of these players, but that would be to patronize what is, to all intents and purposes, one of the UK’s better orchestras. Critical judgement on a disc released to the wider public must not be tempered by such issues; and neither is it. Hughes has prepared his players really well. Sadly he has failed to inspire them.
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