Gustav Mahler, Der Abschied & Symphony No. 9 - Salzburger Festspiele, Felsenreitschule
Performance 24th AugustOn Wednesday evening, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester treated its concert goers to not only a powerfully captivating performance of Mahler’s infamous Ninth Symphony, but they coupled the work with the spellbinding ‘Der Abschied’ from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde cycle. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were led by renowned conductor Philippe Jordan and joined by baritone Christian Gerhaher for the first half of this concert. ‘Der Abschied’ [The Farewell] features as the last song of the Das Lied von der Erde cycle, and although one of six songs in the cycle, this work alone makes up nearly half of the length of the entire cycle. By combining these two works, it is clear to see that the intention was to parallel the farewell story to the often critically presumed ‘farewell story’ of Mahler’s Ninth symphony. While critically, much debate still stands regarding the role of the farewell and the preparation for death from Mahler himself in this symphony, the Jugendorchester’s interpretation certainly captured the essence of the work and the incorporation of ‘Der Abschied’ provided a subtle enhancement of the ‘farewell’ features that the symphony maintains. In both these works, death lingers in the air and haunts the listener with a glimpse of a world beyond, and Wednesday’s performance certainly did justice to the tender interpretation of both works.
The Jugendorchester provided a flawlessly professional performance, and although made up of young musicians up to the ages of 26, the quality, precision and expressive maturity of this group is certainly enough to rival that of any professional orchestra. Their darkly expressive interpretation of the opening of ‘Der Abschied’ set the tone for the high quality of music making to follow, demonstrating exceptional technical precision and emotional sensitivity. The obbligato solos of the oboe and flute sang out over the orchestral texture with vibrant colour and warmth, creating a tender interplay between instruments and voice, as these exceptional performers accurately captured the tone of the text and played out as stunning solo voices in their own right.
Gerhaher’s performance was tender and reflective, and the gentle, rounded nature of his voice aptly lent itself to this evening’s softer interpretation of the work. It was an elegant and modest rendition that despite its light and tender surface still maintained a rich, warm vocal quality creating a very emotionally authentic and captivating performance. The sighing melodic lines were sung with grace and precision, and Gerhaher skilfully deployed heightened accentuation of the phrases enabling the rhythm of the text to shine through the work. Equally, he demonstrated the sheer power, versatility and control over of his instrument in the contrasting forte passages, which showcased his upper range with all its wealth and warmth of tone, a flawless richness that appeared physically effortless and vastly emotive. Yet, without doubt, it was the last few minutes of the work that were the most transcendental. Gerhaher’s sighing ‘ewige’ phrases leading us out of the work were pure, heartfelt and captivating; gently moving and full of promise and hope for what lies ahead. Jordan held a long, and much needed, silence following the work, a moment of repose and compassionate reflection.
It is hard to know where to begin describing the Jugendorchester’s captivating rendition of Mahler’s Ninth. This exceptional group of young instrumentalists performed with emotional maturity far beyond their years, indulging in Mahler’s captivating melodies and did not shy away from producing a vibrant and bold sound, enabling the progressive harmonies, and orchestral countermelodies and textures to ring out around the venue. They demonstrated particular skill in their emotional reflections in the first sections of both the first and last movements, indulging in the music and no doubt further drawing in an already captivated audience. The first movement was perhaps played with a stronger dynamic and faster tempo than other renditions often deploy, which perhaps I would suggest might be constrained a little in order to accurately capture the score’s intentions, but this swifter tempo made for a sense of movement and determination at the opening of the work, and provided a fresh performance and different interpretation. But equally, at the conclusions of both the first and last movements, they traded emotional indulgence for subtlety, humility and resignation, demonstrating a true understanding of the emotional sensitivity and power of the work. The second movement provided a welcome contrast to the first, played with a brisk and spritely tempo that was playfully agile, enabling the dance-like passages of the work to flourish, and the group aptly captured the sweet comedy of the end of the work, that was naturally smile-inducing, before the crashing of the third movement. The finale, a movement well known and frequently performed, was tackled with great elegance and provided a fresh sound for even the most seasoned Mahler enthusiast, however, I would comment that the final few minutes of the finale could have been played with a slightly softer pianissimo, enabling the work to fade out rather more gradually. I would like to put forward my admiration and praise for this orchestra’s exceptional technical skills and precision, praise which no doubt falls back on their brilliant leader, and clear and driven direction by Jordan. Jordan encouraged and deployed ruthless accuracy, sensitivity and vigour in these performers, leading Mahler’s work with true devotion and expression of the score, whilst still maintaining an utterly unique and refreshing performance of the work. It is known that when it came to conducting and performing his own works, Mahler was rigorous regarding the way in which his scores should be interpreted; I have no doubt that Jordan’s direction and the exquisite performance given on Wednesday evening from this charismatic and talented group of instrumentalists would have impressed even the man himself.
Reviewed by Genevieve Arkle