Unforced musicality from Jakub Hrůša and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra’s Mahler Ninth

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival 2023 [7]Mahler: Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor). Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 20.8.2023. (MB)

Jakub Hrůša conducts the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra © SF/Marco Borrelli

Mahler – Symphony No.9

Time was when I, like many concertgoers, was hearing a great deal of Mahler’s symphonies, probably more so than those of anyone else. That was partly choice, of course: no one compelled me to, and I was very much under Mahler’s spell. (Not that I am necessarily free now.) But it was also a reflection of concert programming and indeed the recording industry. As a student, I was avidly collecting Pierre Boulez’s revelatory Deutsche Grammophon series as it came out. In 2007, I travelled to Berlin for Holy Week and Easter, to hear Boulez and Daniel Barenboim conduct them all (minus the ‘Tenth’), plus the orchestral song-cycles, though sadly no Das klagende Lied. It was a defining moment in my musical life and even in my musical writing, for it had me begin my blog to record my experiences. (At the time, I did not even really know what a blog was.) As the years rolled on, though, increasingly and again like many, I felt that the Mahler craze was getting out of hand. I should always be interested in an outstanding performance of a Mahler symphony, just as I would with a Beethoven symphony, yet most to my ears were anything but, too many conductors and their egos reducing them to the level of ‘orchestral showpieces’. It seemed the best thing for Mahler, for other composers, and for audiences would be a period of silence. Sometime before the pandemic, my attendance had tailed off considerably. Since concert life began once more, I realise I have not been to a single performance of a Mahler symphony, unless we include Das Lied von der Erde. Now, for whatever reason, I shall have several over the next month. Will absence have made the heart grow still fonder? We shall see.

The first in my mini-series was a Salzburg Festival performance of the Ninth Symphony from the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and Jakub Hrůša: an excellent team on paper and in practice. Doubtless not stinting on rehearsal time, and certainly not on numbers – I counted ten double basses and there must have been closer to forty than thirty violins – this was a performance to fill the Felsenreitschule, quite rightly at least as much in magical moments of quiet stillness, somehow both endless and over in the blinking of an eye, as in climaxes. We can perhaps be too ready to speak of national characteristics in music, especially in so complex a geographical and cultural area as Central Europe, yet momentarily forgetting whom I saw at the podium and listening only, as it were, with my ears, I was, in the first movement and beyond, put in mind both of the sort of sound I associated both with the Czech Philharmonic and with Rafael Kubelík’s wonderful recordings (studio and live) with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. There is all manner of ways to approach Mahler, but this particular brand of unforced musicality and golden, glowing, never saturated string tone seemed to forge a connection not only with Mahler’s Bohemian origins, but also with a tradition dating back to Mozart, Josef Mysliveček, and indeed beyond.

Programmatic explanations help some listeners and do no great harm, though the claim that Mahler’s faltering heartbeat may be heard in the first movement may be an exception. At any rate, there was neither need nor invitation to think in such terms, Mahler and Hrůša reminding us of Mendelssohn’s oft-quoted observation that music expresses thoughts that are not too indefinite for words, but rather too definite. In many ways, the lack of anguish was welcome, though occasionally I could not help wishing for a little more edge — doubtless ironically, given what I said earlier. With melody, harmony, and counterpoint in such productive balance, though, and with Hrůša’s unobtrusive shaping of the whole so finely judged, there were no grounds for complaint. This was not an especially modernist Mahler, though not was it backward-looking; other standpoints will have their day.

Oscillation between string-led material and multiple woodwind voices continued into the second and third movements. The second certainly had its moments of rusticity, perhaps closer to Haydn than often one hears, but there was alienation too: in the very idea of rusticity, of course, but also in the music’s twin embrace of and escape from it. The Rondo-Burleske dug deep, not only on account of the depth of string tone, embracing counterpoint and its vigour in a related and complementary, yet also contrasting, fashion. Perhaps there might have been greater violence, even horror, yet, again not unlike Kubelík, Hrůša reminded us there were other tendencies in the music. I was also reminded at times, and not only here, of Bruno Maderna’s startlingly ‘different’ way with the work. Hrůša’s marriage of precision and patience paid off handsomely in the way all would surely have felt the pull of progressive tonality, whether they knew the term or not. Mahler’s path to the finale, here resolute and unsentimental, unhurried yet rarely if ever lingering, made sense both emotionally and intellectually. One cannot say fairer than that.

Mark Berry

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