The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland reached the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall after appearing in Holland, Nottingham and Birmingham. They were directed by the Danish conductor Ole Schmidt with the American-born, Holland-based soprano Roberta Alexander.
Performances of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs have to compete with the perfection of our favourite interpretation on compact disc, and the composer created an opaque palette through which the soprano has to penetrate, an especially difficult task in the lower register.
Miss Alexander possesses a voice well suited to Mozart but not heavy enough to dominate the full forces of Strauss.
The vocal line of the first song, "Fruehling", often faded into the orchestra. She was not helped by a lack of dynamic contrast in the accompaniment where the sameness of texture made all the songs sound alike. Instrumental attack is necessary even in piano passages. Nevertheless there was much to admire in the playing, including violin solos of distinction and a superb principal horn.
It was apt that the concert opened with Elgar's overture In the South, the most Straussian of all his scores. Schmidt took the allegro sections at a faster tempo than we are accustomed, making the music seem even more Teutonic in its confident swagger. Like a true Elgarian, he relaxed for the more intimate central section, producing sensitive flexible phrasing for the tender viola solo.
The second half of the programme was devoted to Shostakovich's autobiographical Tenth Symphony. This makes considerable demands upon the players, especially in the long first movement where a sleeping giant gradually stirs into action, It is in the ensuing scherzo, believed to depict Stalin, that the composer erupts into extreme violence. Making no concession to his young musicians, Schmidt whipped the band into a fiercesome frenzy.
In the last two inter-related movements, tempi were nicely judged to contrast brooding despair with the concluding elation as the composer's personal motto theme blazes out in triumph over adversity. The symphony gave all sections of the orchestra a chance to show their paces, most memorable for fine solo contributions from the woodwind.