Herbert Blomstedt brought the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester to Birmingham for the ninth of their eleven-concert, two-week Easter tour. Their magisterial account of Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony, and a fine performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto by Leif Ove Andsnes, earned them a vociferous reception. A detour to Birmingham between Interlaken and Aix-en-Provence may not seem entirely logical, but the orchestra, made up of European conservatoire students aged 18–26, very visibly enjoyed themselves. Particularly in the Bruckner, the string section swayed as one, and the double basses could give their famously exuberant counterparts from the Simón Bolívar Orchestra a run for their money. When the lengthy ovation finally subsided at the end of the evening, there were hugs all round on stage.

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester © Cosimo Filippini
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
© Cosimo Filippini

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is playing with Blomstedt and the orchestra for the entirety of the tour. He spoke very highly of them before the concert, and a prolonged collaboration such as this must have been a major factor in their refined Beethoven. The G major concerto is very much unlike the other four. Most of it is quiet and reflective, lacking the drama of the Third or the power of the Fifth, and structural innovations, such as giving the piano the opening theme, distinguish it from the others. Andsnes’ performance eschewed any moment of sparkle in the first two movements, instead finding an undefinable mood somewhere between warmth and melancholia. His faultless playing showed great virtuosity in the third movement (trills in thirds come to mind) and he wielded a softly assertive lyricism earlier on. His relatively firmly-weighted playing in the second movement was particularly lovely.

As well rehearsed as they were, the orchestral accompaniment adjusted itself to every nuance of Andsnes’ rubato. The strings combined a thick, rich tone with close ensemble, with frequent eye contact between themselves and with Andsnes. Blomstedt seemed to have little to do, but his decision to move attacca into the finale paid off in linking two such different movements. The third initially continued the slow tempo of the second before a well-managed accelerando and crescendo heralded more vivacious themes. Even in the passages between these, though, the mood was pensive, and this was the chief impression left even after the buoyant close.

The orchestra returned heavily reinforced after the interval, the large string section now numbering some 70 players. The benefits of this, especially of having ten double basses, would quickly become apparent. Just as Andsnes’ Beethoven had been, Blomstedt’s Bruckner was impeccably polished. He conducted from memory and with a sort of grandfatherly authority, all smiles and encouragement. He opened the symphony with almost imperceptible, shimmering strings. Principal horn Alberto Menéndez Escribano shaped his famous solo beautifully, seeming to take great care of the ends of notes as much as the attack. The tutti passages opened out with a delicious richness, powered by a trombone section which was given ample licence throughout. Elsewhere their softer moments purred delightfully. Blomstedt was brilliant on two levels: microscopically, he left no phrase unshaped, and more broadly, he built a performance as coherent and architecturally sound as one could hope for. The movement’s second subject, for instance, an airy imitation of birdsong, was made to flow seamlessly and very naturally from the first subject.

The slow movement gave ample opportunity for the strings to excel, which they did without fuss. Their sinewy sound, and a very steady pulse from Blomstedt, created a wonderful sense of subtly anguished wandering. For such a large group, the prolonged pizzicato accompaniment of the violas was as coordinated as might be expected of a far more intimate group. The pulse remained constant throughout except for a single ritardando before the full brass passage late in the movement. The horns in particular shone in their hunting calls in the third movement, again with close attention to shaping even peripheral phrases.

The finale, in its first few minutes, passed through deep mystery, a fearsomely bold unison for the whole orchestra and a heroic climax. Even in the grander passages the background details, such as in the violins, were not lost. The benefits of antiphonally-seated first and second violins was apparent in several places. Like the rest of the symphony, Blomstedt’s reading was deeply engaging in its coherent structure, and it was an endless thrill to watch this unfold. A long, deliberate ascent with a steady crescendo led to the majestic close and, after a nice moment’s pause, a joyous reception from the audience.