Mahler Youth Orchestra plays their Magic Horn and other works by Mahler

Mahler: Mahler Youth Orchestra, Philippe Jordan (conductor), Thomas Hampson (baritone), Burkhart Fritz (tenor) Megaron – Athens Concert Hall, 11.-12.5.11 (BM)

Songs from the period of “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”
Symphony no. 1 in D major
Symphony no. 10 in F-sharp major – Adagio
Das Lied von der Erde

Youth orchestras have a unique ability to convey enthusiasm, and the Mahler Youth Orchestra is one of the best in the business, as was apparent from the very first note at their recent concerts in Athens, where they rose to the occasion of appearing with a singer of the caliber of Thomas Hampson. Mahler’s songs from the period of Des Knaben Wunderhorn are ‘songs for voice with orchestral accompaniment’, according to the score, but as the young musicians launched into the first of these, one thing was audible from the word go: they know that their instrumental contribution calls for a richly textured ‘chamber tone’, in the words of the composer, creating much more than just a backdrop for the soloist. Hampson, a master of these works (Deutsche Grammophone just released his recording of them with the ‘Wiener Virtuosen’), responded by singing with them as if he were just another member of the orchestra himself – and one who knows the entire score by heart, not just his own part! What ensued was an engrossing dialogue between fine musicians intent on telling a story together, albeit with the voice in the lead role. And what a voice, not only rich in the lower ranges but superb and without a trace of strain at the top as well. Not only that, Hampson is such a talented narrator that he could probably sing from the telephone book and make it sound mesmerizing (and his diction is so remarkable that every word of the German text came out crystal clear). His arresting renditions of the two different characters in one and the same song – in ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’ (Song of the Persecuted in the Tower) or ‘Das Irdische Leben’ (The Earthly Life), for example -, thus defying the custom of performing them with two singers as a duet, were a case in point. Here is a disciple of the art of song fostered by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but not of the kind inclined to imitate. On the contrary, Hampson would seem to agree with Mahler’s own remark that ‘tradition is fanning the flame, not adoring the ashes’.

After the interval, it was time for Mahler’s First, with Jordan taking his musicians right to the core of this work. Their vibrant rendition of the first and final movements in particular left an indelible impression, thanks above all to the orchestra’s brass section.

On the second evening, opening with the Adagio from the tenth symphony, the strings stood out in a performance so intense one was hard put to believe it was coming from a youth ensemble. This was followed by ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (The Song of the Earth), in the version for tenor and baritone. Burkhard Fritz’s contribution was a little disappointing, in that his singing was precise, but in a constant forte drone devoid of nuance. We are told that the unforgotten Kathleen Ferrier was often in tears when she performed the final Abschied (Farewell), so luckily it goes to the baritone in this setting for male voices, with Hampson bringing a glorious tone – neither operatic nor of the lighter hue heard in the Lieder of the previous evening – to these moving verses translated from the ‘Chinese Flute’, and once again engaging in a conversation with the translucent hues produced by the orchestra, with the flute-player doing justice to the source of the poetry. A night to remember.

Bettina Mara