Tuesday 25 August 2020, BBC Radio 3 @ 7.30 p.m.

Recorded at Royal Albert Hall on 04 September 2009

The following review was written by me, Colin Anderson, attending the concert for The Classical Source; it is republished here with a few small amendments…

Anyone who has followed Jonathan Nott’s career will have heard him conduct this music before (in Bamberg, at the Edinburgh Festival, and even in London, where he is too infrequent a visitor). What was so gratifying about this concert was that his interpretations have ripened further, exhibiting an impressive wholeness, and that he and the members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra displayed a mutual respect and a close rapport.

Nott conducted the enigmatic clusters and colours of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères from memory (rather impressive, that), its ‘electronic’ timbres tempered by the humanity of the performers, an arresting account that immediately displayed Nott and the players’ concern for sound – vibrant without compromising the music’s otherworldliness.

It might have been an idea for the Schoenberg [Five Orchestral Pieces, Opus 16] to follow directly (literally attacca) as an interesting juxtaposition and, indeed, to reveal some similarities, not least with regards to these composers’ concern for timbre and atmosphere. This performance – using Schoenberg’s original extravagant scoring – held no terrors for the performers, Nott investing both drama and mystery into music that here appeared as if Schoenberg, in 1909, was extending (if radically) musical tradition rather than breaking with the past.

Beforehand, Matthias Goerne had given an imitate and consoling account of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children), expressing Rückert’s texts and Mahler’s settings generously yet drawing the listener into a private and, indeed, accepting world, the vocalism unforced, the accompaniment scrupulous (including eloquent woodwinds) as well as quietly emotional.

Ligeti’s Atmosphères has its Kubrick and ‘2001’ associations; so too does Richard Strauss’s Zarathustra, here given a remarkably cohesive performance, the opening organ-pedals and bass drum roll creating a genuine suspense to herald brass and timpani build a sunrise rather than opening a film! This is, after all, only the opening of the piece, spectacular as it is, and should lead to the work’s catharsis with the tolling of the midnight bell (very effective here with a metal plate, all twelve strokes audible, a rarity) and then the polar tussle of the closing bars. The episodes in between included some affecting but never mawkish solo string playing in ‘Of the Backworldsmen’, the searching concentration of the double basses and cellos in ‘Of Science’ and a schmaltz-free ‘Dance Song’ (lightly turned) in which Carolina Kurkowski Perez (leader) found the ideal combination of elegance and sentiment in her violin solos.