Had this concert occurred just two days later it would have fallen on exactly the sixth anniversary of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester’s last performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor at the BBC Proms. On that occasion, the same baritone, Christian Gerhaher, was also the soloist in the first half (then singing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) while even the conductor in 2010, Herbert Blomstedt, had this time appeared only twenty-four hours earlier at the Albert Hall with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
Six years can be a long time for an orchestra that consists entirely of under-26s, and only one or two players who graced the stage in 2010 were present this time around. Even when orchestras experience relatively rapid turnovers in ‘personnel’, however, their unique approach and sound can be passed on and retained. That certainly seemed to be the case here because, although this performance of the Bruckner was far from a carbon copy of that given six years earlier, certain similarities in style were very much apparent. In particular, as in 2010, the orchestra succeeded in capturing the frequently sweeping nature of the music within a performance that ultimately revealed a high degree of control.
It is perhaps misleading to describe Bruckner’s Ninth as a valedictory testament in the same vein as Mozart’s Requiem or Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major, works also left incomplete at the composers’ deaths. Although Bruckner knew he was ailing by the time he had finished the first three movements in 1894 (he then spent his final two years working on the lost Finale), that was not the case when he embarked on the Symphony in August 1887, just days after first completing his Eighth. Nevertheless, it is always the sign of a good performance when the listener is left asking where Bruckner could ever have gone from here, because it means that the tension, anguish and sheer poignancy inherent in the music were brought out to the full. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester certainly left the audience with this question.
The first movement, with its astonishingly massive structure, created sufficient levels of tension. Conductor Philippe Jordan asserted a high degree of control over the performance, which helped to generate a very direct sound. The consequence was that the output sometimes felt a little too overbearing, but this was compensated for by the sense of coherency brought to a movement that possesses so many disparate elements, and there were still reasonable levels of variation. The strong sense of agitation in the opening string tremolo brought gravitas to the performance; the climax to the first section, which involved the full orchestra, felt suitably overwhelming, while the lighter string passages were equally impressive, with the higher and lower instruments interacting to good effect.
The Scherzo, which starts with pizzicato strings but very soon becomes something far deeper and darker, felt similarly daring and profound. The flute and oboe solos were, amongst others, exquisitely executed, while the movement as a whole was characterised by a skilful managing of tension and release. The strings, in particular, could provide just a few seconds of light relief before themselves producing a sound that was far more foreboding.
The Symphony’s final movement is missing because although Bruckner had done much on the sketch-score when he died in 1896, its pages were soon lost to souvenir hunters. As a result, the work closes today with the third movement Adagio. Here, the introduction of the Wagner tubas took the performance to another level again, while the orchestra demonstrated great suppleness in conveying the sumptuousness, power and melancholy that the movement demands by turns. The ending, in particular, was beautifully rendered, the orchestra rising to proclaim the ‘ultimate discord’ before making the coda feel like a final statement, albeit one that still alluded to so much more. In this way, this performance, like the one in 2010, did succeed in making the three movements that do exist feel like a coherent whole, while still strongly hinting at what remained unsaid.
Before the interval Christian Gerhaher sang J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 82, ‘Ich habe genug’. This involved string players from the orchestra along with keyboard and an oboe soloist (an excellent Bernhard Heinrichs). Gerhaher captivated with his beautiful baritone whose upper register is light yet full, and whose lower register feels persuasive and unforced. His tone and presentation also matched the piece perfectly as he conveyed both the hope he placed in Jesus and the misery he felt in life, while never once indulging in histrionics. The Albert Hall is rather too big a venue for a piece of this nature, but any problems this posed were largely negated by the skill of the performers. Gerhaher produced an extremely hushed sound that nonetheless projected well, and made this vast interior feel highly intimate. The orchestra also proved extremely responsive to the singer and the close of ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ was particularly impressive as the final repeat of the theme was asserted with greater stridency after Gerhaher had completed his singing of the aria.