Prom 60: Bach and Bruckner

Keen though I was to hear the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, for he principal attraction for me, and for a good part of the
audience, was in any case the extremely rare opportunity to hear a Bach cantata played by mainstream performers – especially, so it seemed, when the
soloist was Christian Gerhaher. According to the programme, there had only been two previous such opportunities to hear Ich habe genug at the Proms: in
1956 and in 1962, with Heinz Rehfuss and Hermann Prey as soloists, both enticing prospects indeed. Ian Bostridge performed the version for high voice (with
flute obbligato, rather than oboe, and period instruments) in 2000.

As it was, Philippe Jordan, heedless of the size of the hall, opted for a very small orchestra (oboe, strings, chamber organ) and, perhaps more
to the point, insisted throughout that the strings play in very subdued fashion. An advantage of smaller forces can often be a greater willingness to play
out, but not here. It is a reflective work, of course, and does not need to sound like Mahler (or Bruckner), but the approach nevertheless seemed perverse;
I can imagine it might have worked better on the radio. The opening aria was taken at a ‘flowing’ tempo, which is to say considerably faster than would
‘traditionally’ have been the case. On its own terms, it worked well enough, but memories of, say, John Shirley-Quirk with Neville Marriner, or Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau (with various conductors) were anything but effaced. Gerhaher’s use of head-voice, moreover, left this listener at least longing for
something deeper, darker. There was certainly greater resolution, though, upon the da capo. His diction, whether in arias or recitatives, was impeccable.
Bernhard Heinrichs’s oboe playing was unfailingly musical, very much a second ‘voice’. ‘Schlummert ein’ was again relatively swift, although I felt
Gerhaher might have done more with the words without coming anywhere near over-emphasis. And Jordan’s pauses seemed excessive: disruptive more than
anything else. The following recitative offered much more in the way of verbal emphasis, as did, to a lesser extent, the final aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf
meinen Tod’. Here I was rather taken with the swift tempo, which engendered something of a spirit of defiance.

Jordan seemed very much to have rethought ‘traditional’ approaches to Bruckner, but to rather more successful effect. Once past a rocky opening – devoid of
mystery, and of much else too, not helped by an onslaught of coughing – we heard some fine playing indeed from the young players of the GMYO: first
strings, then the oboe soloist, and so on. The first movement was taken pretty fast, but not unrelievedly so. Intriguingly pointillistic woodwind matched
well string pizzicato playing, and added to a sense of provisionality; this was no ‘cathedral in sound’ of clichÈ. There was, moreover, a strong sense of
development: necessary here to avoid a sense of mere repetition. And there was a sense of intimacy too: not the constraint of the Bach performance, but
something penetrating deeper, to the very essence of the musical lines. The moment of return was duly awe-inspiring: what a wonderful orchestra this is!
Was the approach too fragmentary, though? Perhaps, perhaps not. It was certainly interesting. There was no wanting of power in the coda.

The scherzo opened with a lightness that was far from non-committal, more Mendelssohnian perhaps. Response thereto was anything but light, although one
could certainly hear Bruckner as an heir to Schubert (his Ninth Symphony in particular). Perhaps it was a little too driven, but it was certainly not dull.
There was occasional insecurity concerning pulse, though. The trio was full of incident, proving both urgent and, occasionally, a little languorous. I
liked its range. The finale developed the sense of late Romantic hypertension. There was nothing comfortable to this view of Bruckner, which was all to the
good. Both the virtues and the drawbacks of the previous movements endured. Jordan proved, however, especially able in highlighting the contrasting nature
in the musical material. Moments of crisis registered; much, it seemed, was at stake. The close was blissful, Schubertian.

Mark Berry

Prom 60: Bach and Bruckner

Bach: Cantata: ‘Ich habe genug’, BWV 82; Bruckner: Symphony No.9 in D minor. Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Bernhard Heinrichs (oboe); Gustav Mahler Youth
Orchestra; Philippe Jordan (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Tuesday 30 August 2016.

image_description=Prom 60, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra conducted by Philippe Jordan
product_title= Prom 60, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra conducted by Philippe Jordan
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Philippe Jordan conducting the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony

Photo credit: Mark Allan/BBC.