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"Is this perchance death?" As if we needed to ask. The sun duly set once more on Strauss's Four Last Songs (harmony and perfect peace in everlasting accord), but something about the atmosphere of this performance made its going down especially poignant. Perhaps it was the sense that only a youth orchestra - the European Union Youth Orchestra - could truthfully convey the experience of seeing it, hearing it for the first and last time. Think about it.

Charlotte Margiono was the soloist, her vocalise most beautifully composed, full-toned and long-breathed. The words - the colour and full import of them - are not easily projected in this hall (particularly when the soloist is masked from your view by the conductor, Bernard Haitink); an eye on the text was essential to keep them alive in the mind's ear. But the sounds - vocal and instrumental. You expect zeal from young players (though these, remember, are on the very threshold of the profession), but more and more, it seems, you can assume a deep and abiding finesse. Strauss's Death and Transfiguration was memorable for the quality not quantity of the sounds, the ability of these players to listen and to blend, the reach of the strings (the whitening light of violins at the moment of transfiguration), the judicious weighting of the brass (the noblest threnody of horns to begin the ascent), and a dream of a first oboe for whom life was clearly very sweet indeed. Haitink created the space; they filled it.

But I did wonder if the quality of the musicianship, the care and precision lavished on a faithful exposition of the written score, were not ultimately responsible for inhibiting the spirit of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In theatrical terms, it needed breaking down, roughing up, chilling out: colours were way too beautiful (the verdant Introduction closer to a Ravelian dawn than Stravinsky's prehistory), rhythms too well-adjusted to be intimidating (why even the timpani playing was respectfully spruce). For all its corporate brilliance, an air of correctness pervaded.

Not so on Sunday night, when the EUYO's comparatively "senior" citizens made way for our very own fledglings: the National Youth Orchestra. Their achievement in Mahler's Third Symphony was altogether remarkable. Full credit to Mark Elder, of course, for schooling them so expertly in the ways of Mahlerian styling, characterisation, rubato (this is the first time I've heard him conduct Mahler - I hope it's not the last). But here's the point: this was no schooled performance; these youngsters had digested the notes - all of them - and found Mahler - really found him. As those eight (or rather ten in this case) unison horns cut a swathe through primeval winter, we might have anticipated the excitement that such heavily augmented winds would bring to the marching bands of Summer's timely arrival (all those pungent clarinets and the military twirling of piccolos). But the drama of the opening pages, the potency of Mahler's dinosaurian stirrings, realised here in sensational slow-motion (daring, maybe, but the right tempo from Elder); and the touching artistry of Michael Lloyd's solo trombone - very much the peasant who would be poet - that was special. And to hear a youth orchestra embrace a Mahler adagio (one of the composers finest) as these youngsters did the finale - well, Mahler spoke of the love which passeth all understanding, but perhaps even he hadn't reckoned on the three trumpets in close harmony that here led us towards the coda. One small slap for Elder: if Mahler had wanted oboe glissandi in the "Midnight Song" movement, he'd have written them. Otherwise echt.