Edinburgh Classical: Neither spontaneous nor vulgar

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THEODOR ADORNO, the best commentator on Mahler's music, said that the composer's career was spent "in a struggle with the expert". The subtext was that some composers - Richard Strauss, for example - are merely expert; they know how to tug the heart, to stir the blood, to move us and soothe us, and they don't need to go any further than that.

Mahler was the most expert of the lot, but he never allowed his expertise to take over. His symphonies are oblique and puzzling. He devises great dramatic crescendos that storm up the hill, flags waving, only to find nothing at the top, and he devotes sumptuous orchestration, with choirs of strings and martial horns, to tunes that are no better than nursery rhymes.

In this respect, the Seventh Symphony is the hardest of the lot. Yet for Mahlerians this is the greatest of the symphonies. It certainly sounded so when played in Edinburgh's Usher Hall by the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, that staggering host of young virtuosi brought together by Claudio Abbado. They play with consummate discipline. But Abbado's control is benign, solicitous, kindly; and there is room for indulgence and individual touches - a resolute tenor horn in the first movement, flute birdsong in the second, the dazzling trumpet of the finale, all bespoke distinct personalities.

Nevertheless the taut discipline, the tensile steel spring that powers everything, keeps spontaneity in check. There was spontaneity, but it was an image rather than the real thing, just as there was an image of humour in the scherzo, rather than any funny stuff, and an image of cafe music in the fourth movement, with guitar and mandolin (played, impressively, by front-desk violinists), rather than any Tchaikovskian vulgarity.

There was real spontaneity the following evening when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played Sibelius's Valse Triste as one of their encores. The conductor, Mariss Jansons, pulled the music around all over the place, as though he were making it up as he went along. The Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique was pretty spontaneous, too - mobile, dynamic, proactive, in a way only Jansons can achieve. In fact, this orchestra sounds young, too, though their average age is presumably older. The cellos had an eager, edgy tone in the Marche au Supplice; the ball scene had a fresh, open texture, and the wind soloists were full of witty confidences.

They also played Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, a piece that sounded oddly manipulative after the Mahler of the previous night. Of course, the violin soloist was expert, the brass were extremely expert, the woodwind (as the hero's critics) were expertly irascible and spiky. But the performance had force rather than point; the quotations from Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel and the rest popped up like rabbits out of hats, and you felt that the orchestra was still getting to know this piece. The best moments were the passages of absolute stillness, especially the "renunciation" near the end.