One of the strengths of the Proms is the way the festival brings together a healthy number of top-notch youth orchestras every year, and for Prom 62 it was the turn of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.
The overriding impression of the concert was one of professionalism: not for nothing did Claudio Abbado set up the ensemble in 1986 to bring together the elite of young European musicians, including – unprecedentedly at that time – those from the former Eastern bloc.
For this Prom, the baton was passed to Sir Colin Davis, who in recent years has brought students from the Guildhall, the Paris Conservatoire, the Royal Academy and the Julliard, as well as the National and European Youth Orchestras, to the Royal Albert Hall. I saw most of those collaborations, but this was perhaps the finest, displaying as it did a unity of purpose and commitment that frankly can be lacking even in professional ensembles.
A pastoral mood dominated the evening, especially in this slightly too laid-back reading of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Davis relished the staccato/pizzicato figures that provide Beethoven's link to the classical style, always brought the woodwind colours to the fore and encouraged even more of a singing line from the soloist, Nikolaj Znaider, than is normal in this piece. Davis and Znaider's approach was rather introspective, finding lots of colour in the finely-graded soft dynamics, and there was a comfortable, impeccable sheen to the performance. The violinist revelled in his burnished tone, and his playing was both intimate and well-projected.
Nevertheless, a greater muscularity and masculinity in the more extrovert tutti passages might have added an extra dimension to this undeniably beautiful, lovely performance. I longed for Beethoven the Revolutionary to emerge, the composer of jaggedness, of tension and of drama. This was particularly the case in the slow movement, where a little more pace might have complemented the extraordinary control achieved by Znaider at the softest dynamics possible. Occasionally the emotion seemed forced on Znaider's part, and there were a couple of slips of intonation and co-ordination with the orchestra, but the overall sense of joie de vivre in the third movement was irresistible.
Sibelius' Second Symphony was an ideal work with which to show off the assets of so evenly balanced an orchestra as this, and it made for a wholly satisfying second half to the evening. For me one of the composer's most admirable creations, the symphony is both technically proficient and poetically inspired. Of note were the woodwind soloists – especially Philippe Tondre's oboe and Gabriele Gombi's bassoon – while I found the control and nuance achieved by the horn players (S David F Brox, Sylvain Carboni, Benoit Gausse and Andrej Zust) utterly virtuosic; they had also been outstanding in the Beethoven.
The orchestral balance brought by Davis to the first movement allowed for a solidity of sound to the semi-impressionistic opening, while even the problematic second movement seemed to make sense in Sir Colin's breathtaking reading. The oboe once again came to the fore in the fast-moving scherzo, while the advent of the first theme of the finale wanted for nothing in depth of intensity or careful shaping. It was inspiring to see every single player moving around as one with each other, and the deafening reception at the end was a fitting tribute to Colin Davis' sterling work with this fine orchestra.