Bruckners Symphony No. 9 in D minor can be a test for any orchestra, but what a joy to see the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester handed such a challenge, and what a pleasure to see it rise to it so well.
As played by this orchestra of under-26s, the first movement possessed a sweeping quality that helped to make sense of its disparate elements. Controlled to perfection by conductor Herbert Blomstedt, passages were repeated with just the right alteration in volume to achieve a contrast and yet maintain overall coherency, while there were also moments when the sound was expanded to exactly the right degree.
In the following Scherzo the entire orchestra frequently became a rolling sea of stridency and vibrancy. The pizzicato opening was effective, the confident string playing matched by the wind and brass, while several wind solos also stood out.
In the Adagio the unaccompanied violin motif and the contribution of the Wagner tubas were undoubted highlights, while the orchestra proved adept at conveying both the tenderness and the power that the music demands by turns. The symphonys 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. The overarching achievement of this performance was to make the three movements that do exist feel like a coherent whole, while also hinting at what remained unsaid. The third movements coda felt like a final statement, but one that still alluded to so much more.
Before the interval baritone Christian Gerhaher sang Mahlers Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. His lower register was strong and persuasive, his upper light but full, and if the occasional note felt underpowered as he transferred from one register to the other it hardly mattered. His phrasing was exquisite, and his expressions suitably varied as his passionate despair in Ich hab ein glhend Messer gave way to a quieter resignation in Die zwei blauen Augen. Overall, Gerhaher conveyed a remarkable sense of intimacy in the Albert Halls vast interior, while the orchestra provided some highly sensitive support.
The first piece of the evening was Hindemiths Symphony Mathis der Maler. Demonstrating clarity and attention to detail, just occasionally it required a little more push. The loud passages were certainly overwhelming, but they did not make one truly feel the moment of silence that followed. Nevertheless, in spite of a dodgy first chord, the piece remained an attractive opener to a concert that was then to take off.