The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester are known as one of the best youth orchestras in the world, if not the best. As such, they do not shy away from the more difficult repertoire and tonight’s performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 reaffirmed their reputation. While not faultless, the orchestra was energetic and exceptionally skilled throughout – making a lasting impression.

Members of the GMJO © Cosimo Filippini
Members of the GMJO
© Cosimo Filippini

Berg’s Violin Concerto, “Dem Anenken eines Engels” (“To the Memory of an Angel”) was written as a kind of requiem for Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter. As such, it is a deeply emotional and layered work – and when the right soloist plays it it is extremely affecting. One of the most extraordinary things about the Violin Concerto is that despite its rigid twelve-tone structure, the music is intensely moving. Using the twelve-tone technique seems only to have helped Berg’s requiem for Manon, making it both grief-stricken and comforting. The comfort of the music lies partly in how the violin works together – beautifully – with the other instruments, especially the woodwinds and harp, and partly in the nature of the violin’s part, but most of all in the chords and overall ambience. There is a serenity and calmness about the music, while still brewing beneath the surface and at times allowing another element, which I would associate with grief, to come to light.

Frank Peter Zimmermann did not disappoint – his interpretation of the concerto was stunning, and allowed the music to come to life. At times the orchestra slightly overpowered Zimmermann, but these moments never lasted long, and overall the orchestra and soloist were extremely well suited to each other. The Violin Concerto can become messy or confusing when not played tightly and with strict rhythm – but the orchestra, lead by Gatti, were on point throughout, allowing Zimmermann the freedom to immerse himself in the music.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 is a work full of contrasts – at times it is so loud your eardrums hurt yet at other times it is almost timid. In their performance it seemed that the quieter, more subdued moments were valued much less than the louder parts – as those were where the orchestra shone. This meant that at times the performance become somewhat overwhelming – some more nuance and less rushing would have been welcome. This was not a deal-breaker, however, as the passionate conducting of Gatti and the obvious dedication of the orchestra did lead to a memorable and at times absolutely stunning performance. The third movement, “Scherzo: Schattenhaft”, was one of these moments; the entire movement was played so energetically, powerfully but with complete respect for the melodies, that I could not fault it.

In the first movement the brass section gave us their calling card, and they, along with the woodwind section, were the stars of the orchestra in this performance. The clarinets had already amazed me during the Berg, and in Mahler they again proved to be exceptional. The strings were cohesive and rousing, with concertmaster Diana Tishchenko playing some beautiful solos. I left the concert exhausted but impressed, and despite some criticisms the evening was indubitably a success.