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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Mahler, R. Strauss Simon Keenleyside (baritone); Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Franz Welser-Möst, Barbican Hall, March 15, 2005 (CC)

This was the second concert in the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester’s tour. The previous evening the orchestra was in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna – hereafter, it’s on to Frankfurt (Alte Oper) and Salzburg (Arena).

Strauss and Mahler are the everyday fare of the Super-Youth Orchestra, thereby cramming as many of the youthful elite onto the stage. In accordance with the feeling of surfeit, we the audience got two programmes, one in the Barbican Great Performers range, the other from the orchestra itself (the latter an extraordinarily lush affair).

The Mahler consisted of a sequence of Lieder from various sources, including Des Knaben Wunderhorn and songs by Rückert. Interestingly, two were in Berio orchestratations. To begin with ‘Ich atmet’ ein linden Duft’ (from the Rückert-Lieder) was a daring move. The textures are sparse indeed, with single line unison violin lines and exposed wind tuning. Simon Keenleyside sang with an at times blanched tone, managing to maintain his identity in ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ (Fischer-Dieskau territory, and how large that shadow must seem to any modern interpreter). It was in this second song, though, that strain at the higher end of Keenleyside’s voice became apparent (it had been hinted at in the first song), a disturbing factor that was to recur almost throughout the eight songs.

Berio’s orchestration of ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (‘I walked with joy’ – Mahler left no orchestration of this song) is interesting in the tonal depth Berio creates, a real warmth very well evoked by the GMJO. It was here, too, that woodwind principals had their chance to shine. If none of them has quite achieved individuality yet, the playing was much more than merely competent (clarinets take the honours in ‘Um Mitternacht’). Berio also orchestrated ‘Frühlingsmorgen’ and perhaps deliberately (and wisely) avoided the faux-naïve summonings of folklore that Mahler was so skilled at, preferring a more sophisticated approach.

A pity Keenleyside and Welser-Möst could not summon up the hypnotic immersion so necessary to ‘Um Mitternacht’, nor the echt-Mahlerian world-weariness of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. This is music that speaks of several lifetimes of experience, so it is hardly surprising the young players could not fully enter Mahler’s disturbed – and disturbing – world.

The Alpine Symphony must be such fun to play. It is a no holds barred work, with a full complement of off-stage horns and a huge array of percussion (including, of course, a wind machine, energetically played on this occasion). A hint of hesitancy at the very start proved to be the exception rather than the rule, with a determined Ascent and some memorable scene-painting. The Waterfall, a moment of true magic, was the only real near miss, not quite as evocative as I have heard it. The Storm was interesting in that it was at once a Straussian din, yet it was a well-delineated one, and the closing sections achieved near-repose. Just that ounce more confidence from the players (under a more inspirational conductor, perhaps) and this could have been an outstanding performance.

This work does not get too many airings – it was actually part of the programme at my very first Seen & Heard concert, a Prom back in 1999, there as lush as can be imagined from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Zubin Mehta. It is always good to hear, but not a score one should indulge in every day.

Colin Clarke



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