BBC Prom 57: Berg, Wagner, Bach and Ravel

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Daniele Gatti

Royal Albert Hall, 3 September 2012 5 stars

Franz HammCurrently celebrating its 25th anniversary, Claudio Abbado’s acclaimed Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is now almost as old as its most senior members. With its players drawn annually from among Europe’s most musically gifted young people, the orchestra’s first quarter-century has seen it work not only with its eminent founding father, but with no less than what its website calls ‘the most important conductors and soloists of our time’. It’s hardly a modest ambition; but then the GMJO does nothing if not aim high.

In this prom (as in the rest of the orchestra’s high-octane summer tour) the orchestra was under the uncompromising baton of Daniele Gatti, whose gestures ranged from the barely visible to the full-body sweep but whose control over proceedings was never in doubt. As conductor-orchestra dynamics go, it certainly veered towards the autocratic. Reins that short will never be to everyone’s taste – yet Gatti’s orchestra was clearly enthralled by his sheer musicality; their commitment to his interpretation never wavered.

The programme fell into two distinct halves. The first – the Act 3 Prelude and Good Friday Music from Parsifal and the Berg Violin Concerto played by Frank Peter Zimmermann – remained tightly buttoned from the searching, hesitant string melody with which it opened, to its end with Berg’s soloist soaring high above those famous, seesawing perfect fifths. What’s more, for all that they’re often performed in concert, Wagner’s Parsifal excerpts, taken from the heart of his opera, are hardly programme openers; but Gatti managed to create a sense of suspended time from the outset. It could hardly have been more magical, with the GMJO’s massive string section plumbing rich tonal depths and beautifully sculpted solos emerging from the woodwinds.

In Berg’s Concerto, the soloist, too, seemed to fall under Gatti’s spell. Zimmermann broke away only fleetingly, in the second movement’s more savage moments and in the beautiful, pained lines of its cadenza, his playing super-stylish and endlessly sensitive to the orchestra. There were, perhaps, moments when more bite and a stronger sense of soloistic identity was needed; but the centre of gravity was undoubtedly in the ensemble as a whole, with Gatti constantly pushing the boundary of how quietly, how delicately a 120-piece orchestra could play without losing tonal colour.

The programme’s second half was differently orientated – a fact immediately obvious from Gatti’s full-throttle launch into Strauss’s gilt-edged Rosenkavalier Suite. Gone were the miniscule adjustments of the first half; in came a new, more open regime of brazen energy and decibels unleashed. The tone remained largely polite – a bit too polite, perhaps, for Baron Ochs’s bawdy waltz – but the clarity with which the orchestra delivered Strauss’s sometimes uncomfortably dense textures was ample compensation.

Continuing along this trajectory, Ravel’s La Valse saw the gloves off and the hair let down. Not that any of the detail in this famously colouristic score was lost: on the contrary, there was knife-edge articulation throughout. But the energy of so many young musicians could now, finally, be felt closer to the surface. There was enough head-bobbing to endanger those prone to seasickness; and, more importantly, smiles exchanged across the music stands. The audience roared with delight as Ravel’s edifice reached its exhausted, brassy collapse. Foot-stamping followed, and repeat bows; and then came Gatti’s masterstroke. An encore returned us suddenly to the stillness of the programme’s opening: a tightly focused reading of the Act 3 Prelude from Die Meistersinger reminded us again of this extraordinary orchestra’s virtuosic flexibility. 

By Flora Willson

Frank Peter Zimmermann (Franz Hamm)