Edinburgh Festival

GUSTAV MAHLER JUGENDORCHESTER / CLAUDIO ABBADO Usher Hall
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The Independent Culture
Lots of people are saying that Brian McMaster, the festival director, has at last got the formula right this year. With Dvorak as featured composer - a good choice, for he is both under-performed and absolutely gold-standard - and with two mainstream opera companies, Scottish Opera and the Kirov from St Petersburg, there is as much top-quality music as anyone could expect, after a few lean years.

Even the problem of the opening concert was solved with a bold stroke. An unfinished symphony played by a youth orchestra sounded a risky choice; as it turned out, the massive fragment of Bruckner's Ninth was totally right for the job, with the Te Deum as a makeshift finale. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Claudio Abbado's polyglot assembly of all the best young players of Europe, was quite unique, neither sounding like a group of brilliant amateurs (as do most youth orchestras) nor simply reproducing the sumptuous assurance of a big mature orchestra like Abbado's own Berlin Philharmonic.

Indeed, Sunday's concert was a profoundly grown-up start to the official festival, a work of rich sophistication and seriousness taken at its own noble face-value. Bruckner has an extraordinary way of reproducing gestures from other composers - the second subject of this symphony's slow movement virtually quotes Schumann's Second - yet somehow meaning something infinitely more elusive. He has none of the vulnerable warmth of Schumann, none of the staginess of Wagner (though this same movement recalls Parsifal), and even when he quotes his own music (the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies), he steps out of his own original character. The Ninth is full of unsolved mystery.

Abbado handled the enigma, apparently, by listening intently to his young players, giving them the tempos that enhanced their tone and phrasing, allowing the musical figures to settle down and occupy their own time and space. It was scarcely believable that such an approach could work with players of so little experience. Yet there was none of that nervous eagerness or self-indulgent virtuosity that some youngsters betray. Only a too seductive oboe, a trace of strain in the horns, a certain gusty leanness in the strings, seemed like signs of youth.

The Te Deum does not really serve in place of the symphony's missing finale: it retains too much hectoring theatricality. Yet the addition of the Festival Chorus, enormously brilliant and powerful, and of four splendid soloists, notably the eloquent and persuasive tenor Endrik Wottrich, instantly banished one's discomfort. Clearly, Abbado himself felt no discomfort, for he had the huge ensemble at once in its stride like a marching army. The big choir swept into the fray in perfect order, the basses grimly reverent, the high sopranos gleaming like a sunburst.

This was music both festive and convincing, but also music with its heart on its sleeve. The high C and trumpet fanfares of the close were simply too much of a good, straightforward thing; the dark shadows of the Ninth Symphony remained to haunt the mind.

n The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester play Bruckner at the Proms tonight (0171-589 8212)

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