It's always a pleasure to hear a band of young musicians playing challenging, but frequently played music. Coming at it with fresh ears, they seem to have none of the prejudices or occasional “been there, done that” world weariness that professional orchestras can occasionally have. With Sir Mark Elder at the helm, this was bound to be a very special event indeed.

Sir Mark Elder conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Mark Elder conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

And so it proved, with the extraordinary Tansy Davies launching the massive juggernaut of an orchestra with a piece specially composed for this occasion, Re-greening. Conductorless and containing a choral part but without a chorus, this brilliantly orchestrated seven minute opener was as fresh as an April morning. The links to Mahler came about by way of the block like orchestral colourings and with the voices of the young musicians singing as they played, sounding like a Mahlerian children's choir. This was the most lively and apt new work I've heard at the Proms thus far.

In a fantastically judged and emotionally charged performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, one came away feeling that if Mahler deserved a place in the pantheon of great composers this was certainly the piece that would win him that place. Despite being 80 minutes long, there are none of the longueurs that can beset the earlier symphonies. Alongside his Second and Eighth, there appears to be an authenticity of feeling that is lacking in the others, despite their gargantuan glamour. The Ninth is a restless work, with one foot in the grave and the other still wanting to cram in as much life as possible. 

The first movement encapsulates this restlessness and it is Mahler's greatest moment, rising as it does beyond the constraints of sonata form and indeed above any other formal model, finding its own inimitable rhythm that, in this performance, had a force of logic and emotion that was overwhelming. The NYO found a terrifying depth of sound in the catastrophic climaxes that punctuate the movement.  

Where to next after this? Unlike, the Seventh Symphony, whose middle movements seem like padding, the Ländler that follows in the Ninth retains the sense of time running out, with a mocking edge to the clumsy main Ländler themes and the transitional passages finding a tart tension. The NYO found an authentic lilt and grit in the woodwind and brass playing, creating an absorbing and disturbing sound picture. 

The Rondo-Burleske movement that followed is a unique concoction. Neither scherzo nor finale, it is formally in no-man's land and with its atmosphere of defiant bitterness, it leads the listener nowhere in particular. Here Elder wisely went for an approach of measured precision, finding the rhythmic edge in the manic fugal writing and leaving room for the increases tempo in the final race to the finish.

The Adagio that rounds off the this vast edifice is again restless and unable to let go. Elder coaxed the NYO strings to find a purity of tone that flowered into the climaxes without forcing any sense of emotional resolution. This was Mahler the fabulously successful conductor, still longing for life while knowing that there was little of it left for him. Only after the final climax does the music collapse leaving the strings, with a magnificent sustained pianissimo in this performance, to ruminate over nothingness. 

****1