sat 18/11/2017

Prom 56: Thibaudet, Gustav Mahler Jungendorchester, Jordan | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 56: Thibaudet, Gustav Mahler Jungendorchester, Jordan

Prom 56: Thibaudet, Gustav Mahler Jungendorchester, Jordan

A slightly disappointing evening from Europe's finest youth orchestra

Jean-Yves Thibaudet: Impeccable Gallic charm from start to finish

The visits of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester are a regular Proms highlight, only preceded (for me) by the John Wilson Orchestra in the speed with which they go from announcement to diary. Last year’s concert under Gatti was a whirling celebration of dance – a beautifully programmed narrative that spun us from Wagner to Ravel and left us breathless. The year before Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov brought us passions from East and West, united by the precision of Sir Colin Davis. This year it was the turn of Shostakovich – that youth orchestra staple – and for the first time I was left a little underwhelmed.

This may not have been the orchestra’s fault. Fielding a smaller band than usual, it’s no wonder that their Shostakovich 5 lacked sheer physical heft, and that’s even before the Royal Albert Hall acoustic had done its worst. But I suspect it may have had more to do with conductor Philippe Jordan (pictured below), the charismatic young music director of the Opera National de Paris.

Neither the first nor third movements of the Shostakovich found that frozen, blank-faced pianissimo that can grasp and chill an audience

Jordan’s precision is magnificent to watch, and his musical intention as little in doubt for audience as orchestra. It was a control however that risked subduing the young musicians last night, evident in a tender but rather too tasteful Rienzi Overture and even, ever so slightly, in the Presto of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. It wasn’t an issue of dynamics so much as one of tone colour. Whether playing fortissimo or piano it was as though the bulk of the concert took place in a mezzo-ish sort of character-space.

Neither the first nor third movements of the Shostakovich found that frozen, blank-faced pianissimo that can grasp and chill an audience. You know when the Largo has worked because even a restless audience will become suddenly and self-consciously silent. Determined to keep up his swift pace, Jordan here pushed straight on into the coughing and rustling, and never quite captured his listeners as a measured opening can. It was the same story with the opening moderato which lacked that gauntness in the string sound that is such a part of the Shostakovich soundscape. At the other end of the scale the grinning march in the brass was so controlled and lovely as to lose that edge of the grotesque that can render it so much more interesting. Things improved in the final movement but still we weren’t even close to the edge. Even as Jordan’s speeds proclaimed high drama, the emotional lack of specificity denied it.

Whatever the weaknesses of the Shostakovich (and I suspect on radio these will have been far less striking) there was no arguing the throwaway chic of the Ravel Piano Concerto that preceded it. Soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet set the tone as only he can, easing his way around chromatic runs and syncopated counterpoint with less apparent effort than it would take to summon an assiduous waiter. There’s a delicacy to Thibaudet’s gestures; he seems barely to connect with the keys yet never loses the melodic line. The Adagio emerged as a single unfolding arc, passed fluidly between orchestra and soloist, the whole thing seeming like a private conversation between friends rather than a public statement. A surprise encore saw Jordan join Thibaudet at the piano for a four-hands arrangement of "Le Jardin féerique" from Ma Mère L’Oye, silvered by Thibaudet's right hand.

By youth orchestra standards the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester are still impressive, but it’s hard to see past slips of intonation and limitations of expression when so recently this orchestra were the ones setting the international standard for this kind of ensemble. But if they’re back again next year I’ll be the first to put them in the diary – hoping and expecting to find them back on form again.

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