The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra’s Mahler Cure

Musikverein, Vienna; Saturday, March 16, 2019—There is either a glut of Mahler on the concert circuit or you can’t ever get enough Mahler. There is no middle ground. Mahler is appealing stuff on many levels, not the least that you can easily impress with the music at rather less rehearsal expense than you could with, say, Haydn. Also: the musicians are already there, so they might as well be used—lest you get a letter from a subsidy-conscious politician about efficiency concerns (as happened to the Vienna Symphony not long ago). Granted, not all of this applies to the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Third at the Musikverein, one of three Mahler symphonies in six performances over the course of just nine days at that venerable house alone. Firstly, you really can’t bench half a youth orchestra’s members only because you want to play something other than grand romantic soup. Secondly, Mahler’s Third symphony is the one Mahler symphony where you can least hide lack of ensemble-work and sheer skill with layers of excitement and puppy-love.

Still, in attending the performance of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (GMYO) under Jonathan Nott, I figured to be attending the pick of the lot; certainly the safest bet next to the likes of Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic, or the Lower Austrian Tonkünstler under the (admittedly real-deal) Yutak Sado. That’s because great youth orchestras—and the GMYO is consistently one of the best, even across changing generations of players—do Mahler particularly well. Excitability, un-cynical eagerness, raw force of youthful talent and skill, easily moldable at that: it all translates quite easily into great Mahler—assuming they are led.

Nott, now music director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande after 16 years in Bamberg, may not be as well known a quantity as most of the luminary conductors that the GMYO has worked with since its founding by Claudio Abbado. But he knows his Mahler well (he’s recorded a well-regarded cycle with his Bambergers on Tudor), he’s an efficient rehearser, and he certainly did well here, on the emotionally charged last concert of the GMYO’s summer tour—the grand finale. (What a way to go out, with Mahler’s Third!)

He had the shock-and-awe element of the first movement down pat; perhaps the only part of the symphony more dependent on execution than atmosphere. This was nicely done, with highly enunciated—almost over-articulated—percussion playing and bold, dry brass. Part of the directness might have been owed to sitting right above the orchestra on the Golden Hall’s balcony. The acoustic result is a bit like lifting the hood on the Mahler Third, observing the cylinders at work from above and hearing the engine running. (Except that when the tuba gets going, it sounds more like a spot right next to the exhaust pipe.) In any case, the only disturbing occurrence was the total lack of applause after that first movement, which must be the height of awkwardness to any musically sensitive soul. Mahler even had prescribed, whether out of pragmatism or deliberately, a considerable break between this Part One and the rest. Give the man a hand, for crying out loud.

The second movement was fairly athletic—certainly compared to the otherwise increasingly leisurely tempos. A lively Wunderhorn-inflected third movement featured not flawlessness but wonderful pianissimo playing from the horns and an impressive Posthorn solo from somewhere out of sight. Elena Zhidkova’s “Oh Mensch”, full of breadth and width, as if sung from great depth (reminding me of the great Ekaterina Semenchuk) was pure atmosphere, lavishly rolled out by Nott. He might have tightened the reins a little for the “Es sungen drei Engel”, in which the women of Vienna’s Singverein did their best imitation of angels with a good deal of subsequent bimming and bamming, which is also what the Vienna Boys’ Choir (virtually within feeding distance on the balcony before the organ) engaged in. But the dirty little secret of the Third symphony is that once you hear that sixth and last movement, the greatest occurrence of symphonic flight in the repertoire, you will have just about forgotten the preceding intermittent four movements. Nott steered the orchestra through heavenly lengths; an orchestra that, eventually, was running entirely on fumes of enthusiasm and ecstasy and helped for that long, oft elusive line, to—just—remain intact. Turns out the cure for Mahleria is, very simply, great Mahler.