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 PROM 65 - Ligeti, Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Jonathan Nott (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 4.9.2009 (JPr)

The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is a non-profit making, charitable institution which apparently makes it the world's only youth orchestra project that is artistically and administratively independent of public, institutional or private funding involvement. It is dedicated exclusively to promoting the younger generation of European musicians and  it is well known that the orchestra was founded in 1986 by its current music director, Claudio Abbado, along with Thomas Angyan and Hans Landesmann in Vienna. They were concerned to give opportunities for young Austrian musicians to play music together with colleagues from the old Soviet Union and Hungary.

The aim has always been to provide highly gifted young musicians with the valuable orchestra experience of working with eminent conductors. Because of political developments primarily in Eastern Europe as well as the the orchestra's growing international success, increasing numbers of young musicians from all over Europe soon became interested in applying to perform in it. So in 1992 the GMJO was opened to musicians  of 26 years-old or under from anywhere in Europe. As the only pan-European youth orchestra, it is now under the patronage of the European Council. Sadly there are only three British players in this year’s orchestra (almost as many points as UK usually gets in the Eurovision Song Contest).

The auditions take place annually in over 25 European cities and a jury selects candidates from an average of 1,500 applicants. Prominent orchestral musicians -  from the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras for example - are  jury members and they also supervise and develop the rehearsal programmes for individual sections of the orchestra. Before the major tours at Easter and in the summer each year, the rehearsal conductor, the teachers and the orchestra meet in one of the GMJO’s cities of residence - currently Vienna and Bolzano - to rehearse. During these times working together, the young musicians gather both gain experience and also receive an important impetus to their future careers. There are no fees for participating in  GMJO project; the generous support of the residence cities meets  all the costs for the rehearsal periods and the tours.

The GMJO’s extensive 2009 summer tour began in Bolzano in 26th August touring two programmes conducted by Britain’s Jonathan Nott; one with music by Webern and Bruckner, along with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, and the other – as here – with works by Ligeti, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, sung by leading German baritone, Matthias Goerne. A third programme of Sibelius, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky is given in Linz, Vienna and Milan later this month conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.

Ligeti’s 1961 Atmosphères arose from the composer’s interests in electronically synthesised music and  seems to his attempt to recreate it orchestrally. It starts – for me - with something like the distant  sound of men drilling and digging up a road on a quiet day and  then develops a little with shifting tone colours, some whispers and wind effects. I can see this ‘music’ will have its admirers but I found it rather soul-less even though the GMJO performed it with great discipline.

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, to Friedrich Rückert’s poems, were written between 1901 and 1904 and were later considered by the composer's wife, Alma, as tempting fate, following the death of Maria, one of their own daughters. Rückert wrote the original poetry to reflect his own feelings of loss after the death of one of his son, Ernst. The Kindertotenlieder were first performed in Vienna on 29th January 1905, with the Court Opera baritone Friedrich Weidemann, a singer who was Mahler's preferred interpreter although they are more often now sung by a mezzo soprano.

Like many others, I  am not that used to hearing a baritone sing these deeply affecting songs of desolation and inconsolable melancholy; and on this hearing I still prefer the female voice. Matthias Goerne is an accomplished recitalist but he did nothing else for me but sing the notes and narrate the text; at no point did I see in his face or hear in his voice the spirituality, transcendence and emotions implicit in the texts. When he lightened his voice  for moments like the false joy in the first song ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n’ and the painfully sad last verse of the final one, ‘In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus’ it was clearly an instrument of much controlled beauty. However, ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’ lay too low for him and he suffered a fleeting loss of memory in ‘Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen!’. He tended to swallow the opening words of songs and under pressure his diction suffered. Jonathan Nott, principal conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, seemed to accompany him very sensitively and ensured that his soloist was never swamped by the massed forces of the GMJO: consequently there was no real storm in that last song as there should be.

Clearly the orchestra can play Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces comfortably because individually they are all exceptional musicians. There was wonderful ensemble playing and the dense textures of the music seemed well balanced throughout. It began impressionistically and atmospherically enough but a sense of drift set in during the quieter second and third pieces. The fourth is suitably agitated and within it we begin to hear hints of Mahler which continues into the fifth with its  hushed ending after a contrapuntal peroration.

The musicians of the GMJO are probably too young to know much about Kubrick’s 2001 -  A Space Odyssey but the opening sunrise in Also Sprach Zarathustra cannot really fail. Nor did it here, as it blared out with great conviction by the large brass section backed up by a hyperactive timpanist. The pause afterwards seemed to just go on momentarily too long and then everything became rather episodic, a suite of musical highlights, such as the Grablied and Tanzlied, and not quite Strauss’s single continuous tone poem conception I think. Strauss stated ‘I meant to convey in music the idea of the evolution of the human race … up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman’ and obviously these days inspiration behind this work remains - with hindsight because of the way the Nazi’s misused it  in seeking for Aryan supremacy - rather dubious. The GMJO under Jonathan Nott’s rather languid baton and expressive left hand played the music for all it is worth and displayed considerable musicianship with their leader Carolina Kurkowski Perez excelling in her solos.

I have always enjoyed the GMJO’s visits to the Edinburgh Festival and to the Proms in recent years but for me this was the most disappointing of the concerts I have attended. I was also sad to see so many empty seats in the hall and this accomplished orchestra deserved better. As the evening went on I began to wish for the Webern, Wagner and Bruckner rather than the music we were given. The young musicians performed with their usual well-schooled virtuosity and never gave less than 100% but the Ligeti and Schoenberg pieces are only ‘music’ in the broadest sense of the word and the Mahler had the musical accompaniment compromised by the limitations of the soloist. Only in the Strauss tone poem did the youth orchestra seem truly at ease.

Jim Pritchard 

For more information about the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester go to  

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