Edinburgh International Festival – Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Metzmacher

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [selection: Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Der Schildwache Nachtlied; Lob des hohen Verstandes; Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt; Urlicht; Revelge; Der Tamboursg’sell]
Symphony No.6 in A

Matthias Goerne (baritone)

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 August, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra “unites young musicians”, 24 countries being detailed in the lavish brochure handed out with the programme. As is typical with ‘youth orchestras’, the GMYO’s personnel is large and, here, was founded on all 12 of the double basses listed. Although the rest of the strings were in proportion – 18 violas, for example – never were timbres thick or unyielding; indeed, the Usher Hall’s acoustic glowed, and balance and volume was exemplary. This was no excuse to superficially bedazzle with excessive loudness or vulgar brass; the rationale seemed to be that all the musicians should have a chance to play but without indulging the final result: the sound produced was detailed, lucid and cultured.

Ingo Metzmacher presided over wonderful performances that revealed very thorough preparation (as part of a tour that also includes works by Beethoven, Hartmann and Shostakovich). His genial conducting brought the best out of the players: a smile here, a smile there, a stoop to the floor for an ultra-quiet pianissimo, and some ‘gentle reminding’ (mostly to do with balance) – Metzmacher was in sparkling form and the musicians responded with eagerness.

The ‘merry pranks’ of Till Eulenspiegel were vividly presented – a real scherzo – with a beguiling mix of panache and flexibility, horn and violin solos especially well taken, and the whole brought off with quicksilver impulse. The drum rolls that herald Till’s execution were heard from off-stage – either an intentional dramatic touch or because the platform could accommodate no more! I think the former.

Unexpectedly, for this is not an arrangement associated with Metzmacher, the two violin sections (here totalling 41 members) sat either side of the conductor, which is apposite for all this music, and which was a further aural delight.

Matthias Goerne was quite superb in seven of Mahler’s ‘Wunderhorn’ settings (the strings of the orchestra reduced by a few desks!), visually living texts and music through lustrous sounds, well-judged word-pointing, and sublime phrasing; rapt and poetic, witty, bitter and dreaming. The musical material of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” is shared with the third movement of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, so it was a nice idea to move straight into “Urlicht”, just as in the symphony. Whether in the ‘military’ songs (“Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg’sell), the high spirits of “Lob des hohen Verstandes”, or the extolling of satire and wonderment, Goerne was a compelling narrator and the orchestra was lively, nimble and sensitive.

(During the first half some low-level but ear-catching hiss was audible through the public-address loudspeakers. I mentioned this to an attendant, as did, independently, a London colleague (we discovered!); the Usher Hall managers acknowledged this as a recurring problem and did the right thing: switched the PA system off.)

Just as well, for Metzmacher’s direction of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony was a model of how to present this work as a ‘classical’ symphony without denying the composer his characteristic reflection and searching. Tempos were consistently forward-moving – the opening ‘Morse code’ idea being crisp, unanimous, and established from the very first bar – with transitions being the epitome of integrity. The music had buoyancy and life, long lyrical lines were heartfelt and suitably intense, and dynamic variegation was thoughtful, not least the wonderfully hushed ushering in of the first movement’s coda.

Very effectively, then, Metzmacher recast the opening ‘Majestoso’ movement as ‘Jubiloso’, the closest Bruckner got to a ‘first movement allegro’. The Adagio’s march-like gait was underlined without weakening its lament and deep expressiveness or allowing the edifice to be misshapen. The scherzo was fleet, the trio lithe, and the notion that the finale (launched attacca, the strings’ tremolos emerging from the scherzo’s final chord) is episodic is not one that Metzmacher subscribes to. Terrific performance.

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