Prom 44: Youthful Sophistication

Bartók
Music for strings, percussion and celesta
Ravel
Piano Concerto in G
Debussy
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Martha Argerich (piano)

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Claudio Abbado


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 22 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After the rigours of Parsifal at the Edinburgh Festival, this concert looked small beer for Claudio Abbado and the orchestra he founded in 1986 to help bring together young musicians from either side of the Iron Curtain (notwithstanding its Austro-German roots, the ensemble is open to all musicians under the age of 26 from every country in Europe). And yet the maestro takes nothing for granted these days, so it may be significant that only one of the works programmed actually appears in his discography. With the Ravel, conductor and soloist were on oft-visited ground, not that the inimitable Martha Argerich is ever a comfortable companion, breaking and remaking the mould even in the most obsessively revisited of pieces.

The Prommers made plain their enjoyment of the Bartók, and they were surely right to do so. Abbado’s unforced eloquence can be underwhelming. Not so here with every textural strand given its own space, belying the fact that a larger than usual body of players was deployed. While the final stages of the second movement were despatched with absolute brilliance, the full ferocity of the strings was released only at salient points, Sir Georg Solti’s brand of Hungarian slash and burn set aside for something more suave and sophisticated. The performers seemed entirely unfazed by the (presumably unintentional) instability of the yellow lighting, subsequently switched off to the relief of many. (And, with luck, never to return – Ed.)

The ecstatic ovation for Argerich’s Ravel was of course pre-ordained. The first movement had elements of her eruptive, latterday style, not always faithful to the Mozartian simplicity the composer intended, yet, for me, entirely seductive thanks to her fabulously precise articulation and extraordinary command of sonority. The players stayed with her every volatile inch of the way. Argerich is famously averse to solo performance and she avoided having to start the slow movement on her own by launching into it when the customary interlude of expectoration had barely begun. Once the audience had settled, this was sublimely beautiful stuff: Argerich at her straightest and best, with crystalline trills and not a single disruptive effect. In the ’Finale’, she found a lither classicism than one might have expected while still striking sparks.

The best was still to come in the shape of Abbado’s exquisitely balanced La Mer, definitely not La Manche on this occasion, its filigree textures and jewel-like colour indicative of more southerly climes. The band produced some sensational solos to humanise the sort of analytical correctness into which the performance might have settled with someone like Pierre Boulez in charge. Abbado followed the example of Ansermet and Karajan in restoring the last movement’s fanfares as present in Debussy’s 1905 score from bar 237 – always a surprise if you’re not expecting them. Though the final pages do not lack fervour, what one marvels at is the seemingly effortless transparency.

This luminous quality was even more apparent in the first of two encores, a radiant chunk from the Wagner opera that is the other staple of the team’s European tour. An exceptional concert, even without the second encore – a not quite immaculate account of the closing section of Stravinsky’s Firebird. But then Abbado has always seemed most at ease away from the hardened professionals of the circuit. A glitzy audience of editors, presenters and personalities had assembled to witness this event, but it was the sophistication of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester that impressed most. Such dedicated music-making is rarely heard from performers of any age. And for the nth degree of physical excitement one can always look elsewhere.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Monday, 26 August, at 2 o’clock

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