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Mahler Symphonies Embrace the World

Royal Festival Hall
10/08/2018 -  & October 9*, 2018

October 8, 2018 – & October 4, 5 (Leipzig), 7 (Frankfurt), 13 (Riga), 16 (Liepaja), 19 (Dortmund), 2018
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Trumpet Concerto “Nobody knows the trouble I see”
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

Håkan Hardenberger (Trumpet)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons (Gewandhauskapellmeister)

October 9, 2018 – & September 30 (Leipzig), October 11 (Malmö), 12 (Stockholm), 14 (Riga) 2018
Andris Dzenītis: Māra
Pyotr Ii’yich Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades, Op. 68: Liza’s Arosio – Eugene Onegin, Op. 24: Polonaise and Tatyana’s Letter Scene
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.1 in D major

Kristine Opolais (soprano)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons (Gewandhauskapellmeister)

A. Nelsons (© Southbank Centre/Mark Allan)

As the UK Government hurtles blindly towards a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, London’s Southbank Centre has had the foresight to reach out to Europe, forging a five-year association with Europe’s oldest orchestra, and one of its most venerable – the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. The first of their scheduled visits, under their recently appointed Kapellmeister Andris Nelsons, took place last week, and offered two revelatory concerts, which included a Mahler symphony in each: on Monday night, the daunting Fifth and on Tuesday, the iconoclastic First. The inclusion of these great works in Nelsons imaginative programming, given the current political climate, could not be more apt. Not least because their composer famously claimed that “The symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.”

Like his First, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is entirely instrumental and employs huge orchestral forces. It provided the perfect showcase for an orchestra in which every section excels. The overall objectives, though, are collaboration and cohesiveness. The strings are extraordinarily rich and warm in tone; the brass, mellow but never coarse, the woodwind wonderfully subtle, and the percussion brilliantly precise. Add to this mix the confident vision of a young maestro, fully in control of his troops, and you have a magical combination.

Mahler’s Fifth, which runs for approximately 70 minutes, is divided into three parts which are in turn subdivided into five movements. The first of these, “Trauermarsch” (Funeral March), begins with a distant trumpet, an eerie presentiment of war, followed by a blazingly triumphant but short-lived introduction in which the forces of the full orchestra are unleashed. The Gewandhausorchester’s opening salvo of brass, thundering timpani, bristling side drums and bullet-like triangles contrasted with the measured and melancholy march by violins, cellos and woodwind which followed, and demonstrated almost from the start the extraordinary emotional range, technical skill and synchronicity of these musicians.

The stormy second movement was played, as Mahler insisted, “with the greatest vehemence”, but not at the expense of textural clarity. The performance of the third movement alternated between an optimistic and bawdy Scherzo and a lilting, swaying Austrian Ländler which Nelsons, with broad sweeps of his right arm, flexed knees and tapping feet, almost danced. The fourth movement, an achingly beautiful Adagietto followed. The Adagietto is a tender, wordless love letter scored for strings and solo harp which Mahler sent to his young bride, Alma, at the beginning of their tumultuous marriage. The movement was stretched over 10 minutes and played with sumptuous delicacy but not a trace of sentimentality. Nelsons and his orchestra provided balm for the soul. In a Mahlerian mood swing, we were hurled into a frenetic last movement – thrillingly executed at breath-taking speed, but with military precision.

Herbert von Karajan once remarked that when you hear Mahler’s Fifth, “you forget that time has passed”. Out of consideration for more time-conscious members of the audience, the Mahler was preceded by the late Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s under-performed 1954 Trumpet Concerto “Nobody knows de trouble I see”. At 15 minutes, it made an interval of 20 minutes somewhat unnecessary.

As a young man, Cologne born Zimmermann lived through Nazi rule and this work, inspired by the suffering of black Americans and the civil rights movement, makes a powerful political statement. Combining jazz, Gospel and classical influences in one continuous movement, the concerto placed huge physical demands on the soloist. On this occasion, even the redoubtable trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, who played almost without interruption, showed signs of fatigue towards the end. Given its vintage, this atonal work is surprisingly modern. Its Gospel sounds and big swing band passages, enhanced by an accomplished saxophone section, were captivating, yet it was Mahler that we craved.

After Monday night’s feast, Mahlerians were further rewarded on Tuesday, with a finely rendered account of the First Symphony, paired with the UK Premier Māra for Orchestra by Andris Dzenītis, a tone poem inspired by the mythology of his native Latvia. The programme also included extracts from two Tchaikovsky operas, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin. The coupling of Māra with the symphony made sense. Mahler would have understood the young composer’s desire to reflect “God’s omnipotence” and to represent “the entire physical, visible, audible, and tangible world, the materialisation of all spiritual power”. There was also something of Mahler’s wondrous sound world in the freshness and colour of the orchestration, particularly the use of quivering woodwind and searing trumpets to evoke the immensity of the universe.

More puzzling was the decision to include the Tchaikovsky extracts in the same programme. The brilliant Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, written in 1877 and energetically played, captures the elegant, rigidly ordered and confident world of nineteenth century aristocratic Russia – a million miles away from the troubled zeitgeist of Mahler’s First. Kristine Opolais, dressed dramatically in black, sang Lisa’s Arioso beautifully, but with an enthusiasm which failed to convey Lisa’s outpouring of grief. Equally, the portrayal of Tatyana, in the poignant letter scene from Onegin, was more that of the jaded femme fatale than the vulnerable young woman who so tragically spells out her unreciprocated love for a bored St Petersburg dandy.

Mahler’s wondrously contemporary symphony, completed only 11 years after Tchaikovsky’s Onegin, still has the power to shock and thrill, and from the outset, the Gewandhaus players did just that. Shimmering strings, plangent woodwind, and muted brass introduced the slow and restrained first movement, punctuated with distant hunting horns and a clarinet’s cuckoo call. An elegant minuet in the second movement gave way to another liltingly rustic Ländler. Mahler directed that the third movement funeral march be played with solemnity – measured but not dragging. A solo bass embarked on the mournful tune we recognise as Frère Jacques, only to be interrupted by the sound of street bands and passing Klezmer players. Nelsons’ tight control relaxed only in the joyful final movement – allowing his superb orchestra to envelop us in Mahler’s glorious and universal embrace.

Christopher Sallon



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