Royal Albert Hall
György Ligeti: Atmosphères
Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Arnold Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Jonathan Nott (conductor)
Matthias Goerne (© Marco Borggreve)
Although this concert was not billed as a 'themed' Prom, it did not go unnoticed that the first and last pieces achieved a great deal of their widespread fame through inclusion in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the programme pieces are also linked by Mahler, who supported Schoenberg in his early career (as well as giving this orchestra its name), Nietzsche's philosophical writings, which influenced Mahler and Strauss, and the compositional emphasis in all these works on timbre and tonal colour. There can be few composers more fascinated with the timbre than Ligeti, and Atmosphères is a showcase for the huge range of timbral combinations possible from a symphony orchestra. Although the piece is nearly fifty years old, and instantly recognisable, the close tone clusters of the opening, and shimmering micropolyphonic textures in the strings still sound truly unearthly. Complete continuity of sound, poise and serene intensity are vital for its successful performance, and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were quite capable of providing these. The different instrumental groups shifted in and out of focus seamlessly – including the one singularity in the structure, where a rising piccolo cluster gives the illusion of asymptotically 'going off the top of the scale', only to re-emerge as a growl in the double basses – until the last brushed piano-strings whisper.
It was something of an emotional shock to be shunted from Ligeti's alien skies to the intensely human and mortal world of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle based on poems by a grieving Friedrich Rückert on the subject of deaths of children. Nevertheless, Matthias Goerne's moving rendition wasted no time in drawing in the listener. His dark resonant voice was carefully restrained in dynamic, apart from certain passages where he allowed it to swell; this avoidance of melodrama was a completely appropriate decision for the material, but makes me keen to hear him on the opera stage. Aside from occasional minor issues of balance between soloist and orchestra, the accompaniment to Goerne's voice was excellent, with the double reeds in particular standing out during the long weaving melodic lines.
Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces required another sharp affective change. Although the movements do have individual, apparently programmatic titles (in translation, Premonitions, The Past, Chord-colours, Peripeteia, and The Obbligato Recitative), these were added three years after composition, at the publisher's request. Like Atmosphères, the Orchestral Pieces were ground-breaking in their time, and involved both experiments in tone colour, and the breaking down of traditional compositional architecture. On their first public performance (at the Proms 1912, conducted by Henry Wood himself) they were hissed by the audience, but this time were much better appreciated. The GMJO played with wit and charm, with the percussion section particularly impressive in their delicate precision, especially when paired with stippled staccato woodwind. It was also a delight to see and hear a rare orchestral appearance of the contrabass clarinet!
It is likely that for many, Also Sprach Zarathustra was the highlight of the programme, and the fearless introduction (Sunrise) seemed to confirm expectations, with the hall bathed in orange light as the first low Cs (from double basses, contrabassoon and 32' organ pipe) thrummed into being, followed by blazing trumpets and thunderous timpani. However, it turned out to be the weakest of the four pieces performed. Although the musical technique displayed was highly proficient, there was a tendency (hinted at previously in the Mahler) to over-emote, with some of the string-heavy sections, such as in Of the Backworldsmen and the Dance Song becoming quite syrupy and almost bilious. The Strauss was redeemed overall, though, by its darker, more ambivalent sections, and it is on such a moment – a seemingly confident B major finale undermined by a questioning C from the basses - that the concert ended. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is one of the world's leading youth orchestras, with alumni now performing in many of the top orchestras of Europe. On the strength of tonight's musicianship, it would be difficult to believe that the current membership will not go on to do the same.