Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Dvořák, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt is ageless.  At 92 years old, he was probably older than any four members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra combined.  They are lucky to learn from his wisdom.

The Bruckner symphonies at this year’s Festival seem to have been shoved to the end: three in the final week, starting this evening with the Sixth Symphony.  The orchestra, possibly the finest youth orchestra in Europe but also by its nature turning over musicians regularly, sounded uncharacteristically weaker in the winds than expected, with noticeably missed notes early on.  Presumably Blomstedt noticed as well, since he presented us with a quite unusual interpretation: instead of the strings producing a lush foundation upon which the winds could drive the plot forward and set up the soaring chorales, he instead had the winds provide a generally-legato rich base upon which the strings could take control – indeed, all of the string, from the pulsating violins to the rich viole in the adagio to the double basses (whom he lined up across the entire back row) taking a surprisingly large sound (I’ve never known double basses to have the lead role in Bruckner before) and pushing the symphony onwards.  Indeed, this interpretation could be described as an “inverted Sixth” – not the way I have heard it before, but with Blomstedt there is always something new and brilliant.  The man is an architect of music.

The first half of the concert was not as successful, containing ten Biblical Songs by Dvořák.  This was a very personal work for the composer, based on various Psalms (sometimes combined or edited).  But he only ever orchestrated five of the ten (even though he lived quite a bit beyond completion) and the whole set feels a tad unfinished (tonight performed with orchestrations of the other five made by others after the composer’s death).  The baritone soloist was Christian Gerhaher, who does not have a particularly large voice – I have heard him sing Mahler on this stage (the Felsenreitschule) and with this orchestra a three years’ back, where to be heard over the orchestra he had to force his voice and it came across unpleasant then, but I’ve also heard him sing Schumann less forced and more warmly.  The chamber orchestra accompaniment, with Blomstedt in control, meant Gerhaher did not have to strain this evening, and the warmer version of himself emerged (if still not especially large in voice).  But the songs themselves were not so convincing (I actually own a decent recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing six of them – in German translation with piano accompaniment – where he manages to make a case for them, but Gerhaher won’t be confused for Fischer-Dieskau, although I believe he may have studied with him once upon a time).

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Mahler

The Vienna-based Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, another legacy of Claudio Abbado, is probably the world’s leading youth orchestra.  Its regular appearances at the Salzburg Festival deserve a flag, combining youthful exuberance with skill and promise for the future.

Tonight’s albeit somewhat morbid program was no exception: indeed, it was an all-Mahler program, featuring the final movement (“Abschied”) from the Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, the last piece Mahler completed before he died.  Philippe Jordan conducted, with Christian Gerhaher as the soloist for the Abschied.

Jordan coaxed a wide palette of sounds from the orchestra, and by highlighting individual lines, and then mixing them, he revealed just how peculiarly Mahler scored the Lied von der Erde.  Gerhaher was more of an appendage, just kind of there.  An alto soloist usually sings this movement, but Mahler put down a baritone as an alternate.  The advantage of a baritone voice is to provide darker coloring, but Gerhaher failed on this front.  His voice is neither especially pretty nor full-toned  – probably not helped because he essentially spoke half of the lines rather than singing them, periodically breaking into a quasi-falsetto.  His instrument was big enough to project over the orchestra, but it was a characterless performance, easily overshadowed by (when not getting in the way of) the orchestra.  We heard him, but did we really want to?

With Gerhaher out of the way, the orchestra became the focus for the Ninth Symphony.  I could not figure out Jordan’s concept for the work, or if he understood its warped architecture.  However, Jordan did successfully showcase the virtuosity of these young musicians – as an orchestral whole, within their sections, and individually.  These kids were spectacular, and if Jordan managed to allow them to demonstrate that to the raptured audience, then he succeeded – with or without any other intent.

The concert took place in the Felsenreitschule.  As a bizarre aside, the stage was set up for a concurrent production of West Side Story – and so the orchestra performed from within the set, repleat with New York street graffiti and scaffolding.  Mahler worked in New York at the time he composed tonight’s music (albeit he returned to Austria to do the actual composition), but I am not sure that connection was intentional – probably just a strange coincidence.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann

Robert Schumann’s setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust does not get performed as often as it should, despite being one of the composer’s finest works (or, more accurately, a collection of works).  Goethe’s play is notoriously zany.  The basic underlying story line was an easy topic for composers to portray in music, but the metaphysical aspects were a bigger challenge.  Schumann attempted just that, taking only select scenes, never meant to be staged, yet encapsulating the tension and drama.  He began composition with the final scene (the same scene set by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony – indeed, anticipating Mahler but in Schumann’s mid-19th Century musical language) and then picked an assortment of scenes, composed in spurts and without necessarily trying to always match the same style) before concluding with an overture.  This means that in some ways this piece starts with the most simple scenes set to the most complex music, and as the scenes get more and more detached from the realm of reality, the music becomes simpler and more traditional.

The protagonists tonight in Vienna’s Konzerthaus were the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the intelligent young British star conductor Daniel Harding (a protégé of Rattle in Birmingham and later Abbado in Berlin, and who I thought should have gotten the job in Berlin earlier this year; although he regularly guest conducts the world’s best orchestras, he has yet to land a top-tier job – I last saw him last year at the helm of his current orchestra, that of the Swedish Radio).  Harding understood Schumann’s intentions, and led a masterful performance.  No staging was necessary – indeed, probably would have detracted – but drama showed in abundance.  The Symphoniker produced a full sound at just the right levels, with virtuoso solo playing when Schumann brought different instruments into the spotlight.

Christian Gerhaher portrayed the troubled title role (and Pater Seraphicus and Dr. Marianus) with dignity and a warm baritone.  Christiane Karg, as Gretchen, elevated the soprano lead.  Bass Alastair Miles produced a dark and devilish Mephistopheles.  And the supporting cast proved excellent as well, all of them acting out roles that could not be acted.  The adults of the Singakademie and the Staatsoper Opera School youth chorus supplied a sumptuous choral backdrop.