Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra

Don Juan, Op.20
Poème de l’amour et de la mer
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Philippe Jordan

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although the Arena was well populated there was a surprisingly small seated audience for a concert that included a popular tone poem, an appearance by Susan Graham, and a symphony by one of this year’s highly promulgated composers. The outstanding reputation of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra should have proceeded it and Philippe Jordan is no stranger to London.

The first half of the concert contained two memorable performances, with Don Juan swirling into action with vivid sweep and fine attention to detail and dynamics. The GMYO, unlike some other youth orchestras, does not swell the ranks – this was a ‘normal size’ symphony orchestra, even to having ‘only’ four horns (as designated by Strauss) and thus resisting the use of a ‘bumper’. Although ten double bassists were listed, eight was the maximum number playing.

Jordan has a particularly fine ear for blend and sonority – even down to different sizes of cymbals – and his use of antiphonal violins was a boon. His account of Don Juan mixed propulsion and reverie in just balance, and the principal oboe gave an especially amorous and tender solo. (I’d like to name him, but personnel are listed alphabetically with no-one designated as ‘principal’, save the Concert-master.) Throughout this performance, Jordan sustained a powerful narrative, and mixed in much bristling incident, as well as a distended theatrical pause come the Don’s demise, and with it a good chance of premature applause. But this was a ‘good’ audience, one not making its own noise or revealing respiratory disrepair and allowing the quiet endings of the Strauss and Chausson to properly resonate. A compliment, also, to BBC4’s cameras for not (this time) being intrusive.

Chausson’s “Poème de l’amour et de la mer” (setting Maurice Bouchor) proved rather special; evocative and ecstatic music, and a wonder of suggestion and colour especially when considering Chausson’s relatively modest orchestral forces – pairs of ‘classical’ woodwinds, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, two harps and strings (six basses). Susan Graham gave a model performance; no ‘star’ domination here, rather something absorbed and dedicated – only the music mattered and Jordan and his musicians were like-minded.

Such a rendition makes one think anew of Ernest-Amédée Chausson. He was a very self-doubting and short-lived composer (1855-99), yet also relatively prolific – chamber music, an opera (on King Arthur), a single (very fine) Symphony and, his best-known work, the Poème for violin and orchestra. This vocal Poème, certainly in this rapt and refined performance, demands more regular outings. Soloist, conductor and orchestra were completely attuned to Chausson’s quietly voluptuous world, one of journeying and occasional arriving, the music’s mix of Frenchness and Wagnerian influence unmistakable, and even with a Tristanesque ‘Liebestod’ (“La mort de l’amour”), with autumnal colours to the fore and becoming more and more introspective. This was as spellbinding as it was chillingly exquisite. If only the cellist could be named for her eloquently plaintive contribution.

Far less successful was the Shostakovich, a concise three-movement work with an opening Largo as long (or longer) than the two ‘quick’ ones that follow. Potentially full of double-meanings, none of this seemed to worry Jordan who led a circumspect performance that held some interest in the opening Largo but whose objectivity left the symphony’s close as no more than a romp – little edge, irony or danger with the musicians rather too urbane. Such face-value consideration rather challenges notions that this is one of Shostakovich’s finest symphonies (it is though!); and if the long slow movement, after a slightly ragged start, did hold the attention, this had as much to do with the excellence of the numerous solos and Jordan’s painstaking preparation of the notes (if couched in a soundworld too warm and civilised) than really being taken into the haunted, explosive and coded world that Shostakovich was, surely, trying to convey.

An encore would have been welcome – partly to restore the achievement of the first half – but an ‘extra’ was not forthcoming.

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