Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester – Nikolaj Znaider & Colin Davis

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Just over 20 years old (it was founded in 1986 at the initiative of Claudio Abbado) the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester draws its players from as far afield as Russia and Armenia in the East to Colombia and Venezuela in the West. In between, virtually every country in the much-expanded European Community is represented. This is a massive orchestra. 22 first violins were listed and there were 12 (truly excellent) double basses. The maximum age is 26. Unlike many large youth orchestras, however, there have been no compromises as to quality.

Sir Colin DavisSir Colin Davis has a long-proven ability to get the very best out of student and youth orchestras. Perhaps it is his natural modesty and lack of ‘side’ that brings out the best in young musicians. Certainly his clarity of beat and finely honed sense of what to conduct – and just as important – what not to conduct seldom fails to elicit outstanding results from youthful players. He does not fuss, preferring to trust them and give them the latitude to play.

This was undoubtedly a great occasion but, for all the splendour and finesse on show in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, it was only in the Sibelius symphony that the evening fully caught fire. A few years ago in the Barbican Hall Nikolaj Znaider gave a memorable, muscular reading of the Beethoven with the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. By contrast, on this occasion for all the beauty and care lavished on the work, it seemed quite unduly reverential, Beethoven’s opening Allegro ma non troppo marking interpreted as something more akin to an Andante and the Larghetto as an Adagio. This is quite a common practice but it is surely misguided – midway through both of these movements lie passages of extreme serenity where the solo violin (or Violine Principale as Beethoven describes the soloist in the score) withdraws onto altogether more rarefied and elevated plane. For all the concentration lavished on what had gone before, significant moments such as these simply fail to register fully if the base tempo is too slow, leaving no room for contrast.

Nikolaj Znaider“Emotion recollected in tranquillity” sums up this performance, much of the time the music teetering on the edge of audibility. If one accepts the viewpoint there was much to admire, the soloist’s first entry emerging almost imperceptibly from the preceding tutti, the subtle interplay of soloist and winds (especially the first clarinet and bassoon, Bruno Bonansea and Gabriele Gombi respectively) and – one or two very minor slips aside – the mesmerising security of Znaider’s playing of Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza. However the Rondo’s final pages, suddenly moving up a gear, illustrated perfectly what had earlier been in short supply – lilt and joie de vivre.

The Sibelius was thrilling from first note to last. Although it is home territory to Sir Colin (there are four recordings), it was only the second time he had conducted it at the Proms. There is a temptation to view the work through the prism of hindsight, looking back with the knowledge of the later more aphoristic symphonies and tone poems, yet the first two symphonies inhabit a different more overtly emotional world, the world of the Finnish National Romantic movement.

Written in 1901-2, Sibelius’s Second was composed within ten years of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony at a time when Finland still remained within the Russian orbit and it shares with the Tchaikovsky an extraordinary directness of utterance. Perhaps for that very reason, young musicians, as yet unafraid of strong emotions, bring something special to this work.

On this occasion it went off in one glorious sweep, the sheer quality of the massed strings – using amounts of bow seldom seen in established orchestras – generating a frisson of glorious amplitude at the first movement’s string-dominated climax. Similarly, the dozen double bassists playing pizzicato at the opening of the Andante had the resonant depth one vividly recalls from Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Davis’s way with the slow movement is quite volatile, lending credence perhaps to the knowledge it began life as a series of sketches for a tone poem about Don Juan – whilst he found a contrasting other-worldly quality in its F sharp episode, andante and ppp. In the scherzo the plangent winds made much of the trio – lento e suave – and the build up to the finale was simply huge, its twin peaks – the return of the ‘big’ string tune and the apotheosis – had the kind of unforced raw excitement one seldom experiences in a concert hall.

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