The World Orchestra for Peace is a disparate orchestra. Formed in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, it brings together the finest players from the world’s top orchestras as a demonstration of peace. Yet the big question remains: could this cobbled-together orchestra sound as a single, unified entity, working towards a common goal? 

Perhaps this is not the right question to ask, especially given the programme. Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten – Symphonic Fantasy and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony are eclectic works. They encompass many moods and characters, and members of the orchestra are often treated as individuals. So whilst the World Orchestra for Peace are less uniform than orchestras that have been regularly playing together for years, this may not be a bad thing.

Roxanna Panufnik actually takes advantage of the orchestra’s individualism in Three Paths to Peace. The World Orchestra for Peace commissioned the work for a concert in Jerusalem, and this BBC Proms concert was its European première. Panufnik utilises the orchestra’s individual voices. The work opens with solo lines passed between members of the orchestra, but not necessarily to the leaders of the sections. However, I failed to find the piece engaging. Panufnik’s orchestration was atmospheric, but I was not convinced by the message it was trying to portray. Three Paths tells the story of Abraham, and it intertwines Christian, Jewish and Islamic music to show how they can work alongside each other. But what I suppose was meant to be Islamic music sounded clichéd. Being played by a symphony orchestra, the bastion of the Christian western art tradition, made it sound like an exotic insertion. The three musics were forced together into a Christian mould, failing to show how they could work together on equal terms.

The same however, is not true for the players in the World Orchestra for Peace. These are highly experienced musicians, making it patronising to assume that they would not be up to the task of playing together as an ensemble. The strings were particularly impressive. They maintained a warm, enticing sound through the evening, and were also capable of the multiple expressions that Strauss and Mahler demand. Even after the threatening brass that opened Die Frau ohne Schatten, the strings’ mystical swirling nearly made one forget that initial menace. This was helped by the fact that conductor Valery Gergiev was unafraid of letting the orchestra take the reins. His conducting was one of give and take, and there were moments when Gergiev was riding along with the orchestra instead of leading it. Gergiev pulled this disparate group of players together, but he still gave the strings the freedom to unabashedly luxuriate in the full-blown romanticisms of Strauss’ melodies.

Although Mahler rejected titling his Sixth Symphony “The Tragic”, it has maintained its reputation as the darkest of his symphonies. But there is much more to this work than tragedy. Mahler’s symphonies are known for their eclecticism, and the Sixth is no different, with moments of mysticism, fragility and even playfulness. The first movement, for example, begins with a menacing march tune, but this is contrasted with by an impassioned melody that follows. The symphony would lose its power if it were only about tragedy. The presence of something else, something more hopeful that turns out to be fruitless is what makes the work so harrowing.

Gergiev treated these moments expertly. Though the first movement’s impassioned melody on the strings was played beautifully, Gergiev ensured that there was always a sense of something not quite right underneath. At the centre of the movement comes a moment of mystical stillness. Once again, the voices of the orchestra were taken advantage of as Gergiev enticed the individual expression out from a lone horn and viola. But it was soon clear that this magical moment was only a dream. The return of the movement’s opening march-tune was startling, painfully jolting the audience awake.

The following slow movement might have acted as brief respite from the terror of the ominous march-tune of the first movement. Its sweet melodicism was the complete opposite of the previous movement. But under Gergiev the first movement’s terror could not be forgotten. Even as the music built up to a full orchestra, it was not triumphant but pained and striving. The soaring strings, which should be beautiful, had an underlying sadness. It was the subtle treatment of moments of hope that made the two hammer-blows in the work’s finale so devastating. For Gergiev, all moments of hope had been overshadowed by the first movement’s march, giving the hammer blows a sense of terrifying inevitability. And watching that huge hammer being raised was as dramatic and shocking as ever.