Apart from his celebrated recordings and many legendary live performances, arguably the greatest legacy Claudio Abbado left to the world of music was the multinational Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) which he founded in Vienna 30 years ago. This season the GMYO was made up of musicians from over 20 European countries including Ukraine and Turkey. For antediluvian concert-goers, it was sobering to ponder that these exceptionally talented young musicians were not even born when the GMYO made its debut in 1986.

Christian Gerhaher, Philippe Jordan and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra © Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli
Christian Gerhaher, Philippe Jordan and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
© Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli
Even more ironic is that this group of naturally exuberant and youthfully optimistic players performed two works by Mahler in which themes of imminent mortality, profound melancholy and almost begrudging acceptance of cosmic immutability are expressed in some of the most maudlin music Mahler ever wrote. This wasn’t exactly a jolly foot-tapping concert and there was a noticeable absence of the usual Bulgari and Boucheron crowd.

Conductor Philippe Jordan chose to open the programme with only the last movement “Der Abschied” of Das Lied von der Erde which would be analogous to performing just the Choral finale in Beethoven’s Ninth. Mahler described Das Lied von der Erde as a “Symphony for tenor and alto (or baritone) voice and orchestra” but for many years the preference for an Erda-ish, deep female vocal colour prevailed. German baritone and Lieder specialist Christian Gerhaher brought an intimate, quietly reflective interpretation to this deeply inward-looking text.  Mahler’s direction was “In erzählendem ton ohne ausdruck” (in narrative style without expression) and this is precisely how Gerhaher sang it. His sensitive word colouring in “Die liebe Erde allüberall” was impressive and his richly melodic phrasing wonderful in its pure cantilena with round unforced high notes. The concluding repeated “Ewig…ewig” faded with ineffable stillness into the cosmic void.

Inspired by the soloist’s tasteful restraint, the enormous orchestra (including ten double basses) played with a breadth of phrasing and attention to dynamic markings which would have done much older ensembles proud. First flute (Joséphine Olech) and oboe (Rafael João Vieira Sousa) were particularly impressive in the solo passages. Closer to Otto Klemperer’s measured reading than Bernstein’s hyper emotional Sturm und Drang, Jordan’s tempi were naturally fluid and the polyphonic pathos of loss and yearning was expressed without artifice or excessive sentimentality which increased one’s regret that only the final movement had been programmed.

Mahler’s last completed work comprised the second half of the concert. There has been endless post-Freudian analyses about the genesis of this lengthy opus but suffice to say, the death-obsessed composer was far from a happy chappy at the time of its composition. The Ninth Symphony requires a huge orchestra (110 players in this case) and the complex thematic submotifs and melodic and harmonic texture undergo constant transmutation.

Jordan’s sweeping circular baton technique kept the intricate tempo changes under admirable control and his every gesture was absorbed by the young players with steadfast concentration. German concert master Hildegard Niebuhr played the numerous violin solos with commendable evenness of tone and an intuitive sense of phrasing. The hesitant syncopated opening themes were succeeded by insistent trombone and tuba passages which eagerly followed the composer’s specific instructions to play “Mit höchster Gewalt”. The gentle restraint shown in “Der Abschied” was blasted away in the first few bars for brass.

Philippe Jordan and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra © Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli
Philippe Jordan and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
© Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli

The manic second movement with its warped rustic Ländler rhythms turned into a grotesque danse macabre was played with frenzied precision by both brass and percussion. First horn Asbjørn Ibsen Bruun was impressive. There was also some outstanding trumpet work from Markus Czieharz in the dissonant sarcastic rondo. The intricate polyphonic rhythms and double fugues were expertly executed and the cheeky clarinet intrusion was cackled with insolent bravura.  

The enormous string section made its lyrical presence felt in the opening to the elegiac “zurückhaltend” fourth movement and the “Abide with me” allusion was mellifluous. The concluding ppp strings reference to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder was played with an arching lyricism not unworthy of the Vienna Philharmonic and the endless closing bars reached a Zen-inspired sense of profound serenity which left the audience breathless – and for a very long time applause-less as well.

As long as youthful ensembles such as the GMYO, the West-Eastern Divan and Gustavo Dudamel’s Simón Bolívar continue to perform with such dedication, infectious enthusiasm and unjaded exuberance, the future of orchestral music is certainly in very good hands. Hopefully a whole new generation of concert-goers will also be attracted to superb music-making by their peers. Vale Claudio.