PROM 56: Philippe Jordan Brings the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester to the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 56, Wagner, Ravel, ShostakovichJean-Yves Thibaudet(piano), Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Philippe Jordan (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 25.8.2013. (JPr)

Wagner: Rienzi‒ overture
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor

It is fairly well known by now how the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (often shortened to GMJO) was founded in 1986 by its current music director, Claudio Abbado, and is regarded as one of the world’s leading youth orchestras. The original aim was to allow young Austrian musicians to play music together with colleagues from the old Soviet Union and Hungary under the guidance of eminent conductors. After all the political upheavals of Eastern Europe, as well as the orchestra’s growing international success, increasing numbers of young musicians from all over Europe soon became interested in applying to perform in it. So in 1992 the GMJO was opened to musicians of 26 years old or under from anywhere in Europe. As the only pan-European youth orchestra, it is now under the patronage of the Council of Europe.

The GMJO are always welcome visitors to the Proms and their concerts are eagerly anticipated, this year especially so, as they were conducted by Philippe Jordan, musical director of the Opéra National de Paris and soon to become chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. He is a young conductor who in his earliest years was not a favourite of mine but who now I much admire, particularly because of his conducting of Parsifal in Bayreuth and Götterdämmerung in Paris. He was ideally suited to make more than there probably is of the overture from Rienzi, an early Wagner opera, which was written by the 26-year-old composer with the aim of conquering Paris that was in thrall, at the time, to Meyerbeer. As Barry Millington wrote in his programme note: ‘Not content with producing just another grand opera, Wagner set out with the express intention of “outdoing all previous examples with sumptuous extravagance”.’ He didn’t fare well in the French capital and blamed Meyerbeer, who was a German-born Jew, and this fermented in his mind to end up in some regrettable 1850 writings for which Wagner’s descendants keep having to apologise.

The overture starts with a trumpet call that alludes to something from the book by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that the opera is based on, there is an eloquent melody that will reoccur as ‘Rienzi’s Prayer’ in Act 5(!) and lots of military music. Under the baton of someone not as steeped in Wagner as Jordan is – from 1998 to 2001 he was Barenboim’s assistant in Berlin – it can sound rather prosaic. Here we heard clearly how the rather transparent opening and then moments of the triumphalist ending prefigured the music of Lohengrin and Der fliegende Holländer that were yet to be composed. The three British players in the brass section (trombonists Rory Cartmell and Ross Learmonth and tuba player Matthew Blunt) were kept very busy and the overture clearly benefited from the orchestra’s youthful energy. Why didn’t the Proms schedule the entire opera they performed recently in Salzburg under the same conductor – an opportunity sadly missed?

Ravel’s aim was that ‘the music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be light-hearted and brilliant and not aim at profundity or dramatic effect.’ His Piano Concerto in G major is redolent of the 1930s when it was composed. It is a ‘whip cracker’ of a pianistic bagatelle – literally because that is how it starts with the crack of a whip and jaunty piccolo tune that apparently came to Ravel on a train journey from Oxford to London! It was given a sparkling performance from Jean-Yves Thibaudet who is tagged with being ‘flamboyant’ and could be nothing less in this concerto. The first movement begins for him with a frenetic blur of hands up and down the keyboard that dips in and out of the sounds of bustling New York traffic familiar from Gershwin’s earlier – equally jazz-influenced concerto – Rhapsody in Blue. Thibaudet brought an elegiac autumnal glow to the slow movement and there were some fine woodwind solos backing him up. The final movement had all its necessary exuberance and a virtuoso improvisatory jazzy feel to it that the GMJO responded wonderfully to. Thibaudet and Jordan showed their even lighter-hearted side by sitting together at the piano stool for more Ravel as an encore; this time his delightful ‘Enchanted Garden’ piano duet from the Mother Goose Suite.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was born of failure to please Stalin in 1936 with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which at that time was an international success. The young composer began to fear for his life, and waited every evening with his bags packed so that the secret police could take him away without disturbing his children. The police never did come, and to a degree Shostakovich decided if you can’t beat them, then join them. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony and started to compose a Fifth giving it the subtitle, ‘An Artist’s Practical Answer to Just Criticism’. He sought to reinstate himself with the Politburo through this work and this he achieved, because the first performance was a huge success. The first movement is dark and sad, the second is brittle and sarcastic, and the third is a deeply desolate outpouring of emotion. However it was only how it all ended that appeared important to the authorities, and the long last movement, as they understood it, climaxed in a paean of praise to Soviet Socialism. However, when the final ‘march’ is played at the tempo indicated in the original score, the ‘joyful celebration’ heard at the incorrect tempo turns into a scream of pain, a crying out against oppression. This was Shostakovich’s hidden message to the world, a real musical Da Vinci Code; he gave them what the rulers wanted, but retained a personal freedom to encode in the work a subversive message for those who could understand it.

Philippe Jordan was born in Switzerland but is music director in Paris, his pianist for the Ravel was French and so were the majority of the orchestra. The French finesse that worked surprisingly well for the Wagner, let him down a little in the Shostakovich that was given a competent – if slightly naïve – performance. Here the musicians’ youth was a disadvantage, as the symphony needed a much more cynical, world-weary approach from those with more years under their bow. It all needed much more Teutonic tension from the start and however Mahlerian Jordan made Shostakovich’s folk-ish second movement sound I suspect it should be a much sadder reminder of a way of life that is over forever: the lives lost in the struggle are then commemorated by the Largo’s lamentations. Throughout listening to this performance I was reminded of Mahler’s ambiguous Seventh Symphony and that composer clearly influenced the march-like theme at the start of the fourth movement that builds to timpani-driven desolation at the end. There were excellent solo clarinet, horn and violin (the petite Yulia Koplyova) and the brass as a group were on good – if not particularly rampant – form.

The GMJO received a well-deserved rapturous reception and those staying to cheer them deserved an encore that never materialised.

Jim Pritchard

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