The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is one of the finest youth orchestras in the world. Bringing together young musicians from all over Europe, from Portugal to Russia, it is a model of international co-operation. With former members in almost all the major symphony orchestras in Europe it is the stomping ground of our continent’s best young orchestral musicians, and Sunday night’s concert showed the high standards these young players set for themselves. With a programme of Wagner, Berg, Strauss and Ravel, this was a feast of stylistic variety, which at the same time linked together seamlessly. Conductor Daniele Gatti has often been praised as a master of thoughtful programming, but here he surpassed himself.

Daniele Gatti
Daniele Gatti

Gatti has developed a strong reputation for his interpretations of Wagner’s last opera Parsifal, and his performance of the Prelude to Act Three and the Good Friday Music was something to be cherished. The Prelude to Act Three depicts Parsifal’s search for the holy spear, through the dangerous realms of evil Klingsor (somewhat akin to Frodo’s ventures into Sauron’s Mordor). Seeing the great suffering of the world Parsifal is ready to recover the holy spear and bring redemption to the wounded Amfortas. The Good Friday Music seems to bring together the whole meaning of the opera, a journey through suffering to compassion and redemption. It contrasts two ideas about Good Friday, one where mortals mourn at the crucifixion of Christ, and another in which sinners rejoice, looking past the cross to mankind redeemed. Gatti leads the orchestra in a performance that felt almost as epic as the full opera. There was a perfect sense of pace, but that wasn’t all. The dynamics were so deftly graded, with only one true fortissimo in the work’s twenty minutes. This gave a sense of the music’s grand architecture, that is so vital, but so often missing, in performances of Wagner. It was instantly clear why Gatti has been conducting Parsifal at Bayreuth for the past four years.

Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto followed, and showed another side of both conductor and orchestra. This work, a response to the early death of Alma Mahler’s daughter Manon, aged just eighteen, was the keystone of this programme, linking all the elements together; death and redemption meet the waltz in Berg’s memories of Vienna. Though a concerto by name, this work can almost be seen as a tone-poem, with the first half depicting Manon in life, while the second sees her through sickness, into death and transfiguration. As a native Viennese, Berg’s memories of Manon as a young girl are filled with serial echoes of waltzes and Austrian dances, like a ghostly image of happier times. Frank Peter Zimmermann joined Gatti and the GMJO on the stage, and played with a sensitivity to the music which made gave it a rare transparency. What is so difficult about performing Berg is how traditional the emotions are, juxtaposed with a highly modern means of expressing them, and Zimmermann cut right to the heart of this work, making what is often so difficult, abundantly clear. The GMJO played incredibly sensitively under Gatti, their large numbers never causing problems of balance with the violin; the simplicity of their delivery in this complex music was a joy to listen to. Towards the end, when Berg directly quotes Bach’s chorale tune Es ist genug ("It is enough") in the clarinets, there was a magical stillness which cut through the atmosphere of the hall, a truly special moment.

After the interval came two snapshots of the Viennese waltz, both removed from the mainstream tradition, critiquing it; one from the fallen Vienna of the early 20th Century, the other from the geographical distance of Paris. The suite from Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier is a snapshot of 18th Century Vienna, all ballrooms and bustles, and the waltzes are full of effervescent sparkle. Gatti and the GMJO gave these waltzes a real spring, letting them trip along happily and giving them a short dramatic tug here and there. The rich string sound of this young ensemble gave the dances a regal sound, bringing a sense of joy that made it hard not to smile. While there was so much to recommend this performance, there was something missing. Der Rosenkavalier is a comedy, and these waltzes are really parodies of the genre of which they’ve become archetypal. There’s space here for more sugary sweetness in music’s syrupy emotions, and this performance erred perhaps a little too much towards 18th Century poise and refinement.

The final item of the programme was Ravel’s La Valse, a dark and mocking interpretation of the Viennese waltz, as seen from Paris in 1920. The composer George Bejamin describes it as depicting the birth, decay and destruction of the waltz as a metaphor for European civilisation in the aftermath of the First World War. In the 21st Century the work sounds positively cinematic, conjuring up images of ghosts dancing a waltz in a disused, haunted dance hall. The GMJO, with their vast, dramatic sound, electrified the work, making it not just ghostly, but demonic. Their performance was full of verve, from the eerie opening to the cataclysmic final chords, with all of Ravel’s kaleidoscopic orchestral colours shaped and shaded, whilst losing none of the works dancing momentum. The audience’s tumultuous applause elicited more Wagner as an encore, the Third Act Prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was heart-wrenchingly beautiful, once again showcasing the GMJO’s impressive string sound.