Ideally timed for school holidays, the BBC Proms always draw young audiences. Just as important, though, they provide a showcase for the student orchestras that come together over the summer – none more impressive than the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, an elite band drawn from across Europe.
This year’s summer tour, with Colin Davis as conductor, has taken them to Bolzano, Salzburg, Dresden and, last week, London. Now 83, Davis will, one hopes, have inspired the young musicians with a lifetime’s wisdom.
In his early years, Stravinsky was often to be found in Davis’s programmes and the Symphony in Three Movements resurfaced here, though slower and grander than before, not the explosion of second world war violence that Davis used to make it. In Ravel’s song-cycle Shéhérazade the speeds were simply too slow. Susan Graham, the mezzo soloist, did very well to make the flow of the music still seem so natural and her singing filled the hall beautifully with no strain, but the myriad details of Ravel’s exotically coloured music sounded pedantic at these speeds.
After the interval Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 regained momentum. This was not febrile Tchaikovsky living on its nerves, but Davis kept the symphony striding forwards to climaxes of awesome power that echoed across the Albert Hall like mighty thunderclaps. The young orchestra’s part in this was to deliver wholeheartedly Davis’s demands for rich tone and rhythms that sink deep foundations. There is no other youth orchestra to touch them – not the much younger players of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain nor, on this year’s erratic showing, the Simón Bolívar Venezuelans.
The late-night Prom an hour later returned to this year’s bicentenary composer, Liszt. Rather than the overblown orchestral pieces of dubious quality scattered through the season so far, here was Liszt at the piano: Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin played a one-hour programme ranging from the grand scene-painting of the Legend No. 2 “St Francis of Paola Walking on the Water” to the popular brilliance of Venezia e Napoli. In the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude his fingers rippled up and down the keyboard to create a halo of the softest sound in which every note was still crystal clear.