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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 18 )
Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra • Philippe Jordan

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra • Philippe Jordan

Rienzi Minus the Baggage

Picture (detail) courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Wolfgang Lienbacher.

The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra opened their Salzburg orchestral concert under Philippe Jordan with Wagner’s Rienzi Overture. They might as well have, seeing how orchestra and conductor have already been performing Rienzi throughout the Festival anyway, thereby saving on valuable rehearsal time; time that was audibly put to great use in the Ravel Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that followed.

But wouldn’t the orchestra be bored by the piece by now? Quite the opposite. The performance was palpably special, such a sea of cohesive and coherent sound, perfectly honed and perfectly executed, swelling and receding, climacting and re-climacting—and all seemingly effortlessly. Wagner, given such a virile treatment, gets a seductive quality that borders the dangerous. Equally the relapses into innocent dalliance, of which there are a few in the overture (and a good deal more in the opera). Little wonder, really, because it must feel great as a GMYO-player to throw yourself into the Rienzi Overture and know that the thing is over after 15 minutes, and you don’t have to play the whole damn opera that—needlessly—follows for five more hours after the spectacular Prelude. That should give a good deal of extra motivation, and a little extra gleam in the players eyes, it struck me, could be detected on account of it.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a Washington and ionarts regular (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), performed the Ravel concerto with routine and flair in healthy balance, excelling in all the bits where he performed with individual partners from the orchestra, like the piccolo and especially the superb oboist who played his lyrical bit with the inspired desperation that an oboist would, knowing that for most of the rest of the year he is relegated to the role of musical clown within the orchestra. The thankful part for harp had the most made of it, and the trumpet let out a saucy snarl when called upon by Jordan. Thibaudet operated without flash, without lingering, naturally beautiful and unsentimental—which reminded me of how I’d like to hear the Adagietto performed, but never really do. For an encore he and Jordan, who coyly obliged, entertained with a four-hand rendition of a bit from Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite.

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DSCH, Symphony No.5,
E.Mravinsky / Leningrad PO
Audiophile Classics

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is not known for sweetness and elegance, but that’s exactly what the orchestra and their conductor produced in the first movement, along with a calming pulse amid which they only ever so briefly showed their claws that would later grip, relentlessly. All the many mood- and rhythmic changes, instrumental extremes and depressed circus-hoopla of the second movement were mastered with verve to spare, which left most patrons breathless but didn’t keep others from strategically pockmarking it with coughs. Perhaps they had held their breath too long… In any case, the quality playing made you (me) want to applaud after every movement, even the heavy, long-stringed and chain-pulling third movement which made, as it ideally might, the finale appear like a relief, a welcome catharsis of all that had been pent up. Hearing it as such also means dispensing with the tedious question of whether it is all-out jubilation or subversive at gunpoint. It’s an unleashing, primarily… then again, an unleashing can’t be quite un-political in an oppressive environment. Fortunately this was Salzburg, 2013, not Leningrad 1937, it was musically spectacular, and politics did not come into it.

The Meistersinger Overture, almost as well played as that of Rienzi, was a neat encore and—although it’s not a fair comparison—rather better than that of the Vienna Philharmonic when they performed the opera at the Festival.