Nelsons and the Bostoners Glorious in a Splendid if Slow Mahler Third

15/09/2018

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Lucerne Festival [6] – Mahler: Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Ladies of the Gewandhaus Choir, Gewandhaus Childrens’ Choir, Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL) Luzern, Lucerne, 13.9.2018. (JR)

Susan Graham, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (c) Lucerne Festival/Peter Fischli

Susan Graham (mezzo), Andris Nelsons (conductor) & BSO (c) Lucerne Festival/Peter Fischli

Mahler – Symphony No.3 in D minor

My fellow reviewer Michael Cookson attended and reviewed this same concert in Berlin a week ago (click here) and he has described the work in considerable detail, sparing me the effort.

The performance in Lucerne was also magnificent; the symphony is a wonder. Yes, it is a sprawling behemoth and Nelsons’ reading was slow at times; but he brought out parts which other conductors do not reach, highlighted the angular and the violent, and lavished attention on detail. Some listeners might have found this micro-management, but it worked. Haitink and Abbado took more straightforward views of the piece, and that worked, too. It is such a colossal symphony, more a jumble of glorious movements, that it can withstand – and benefit from – almost any interpretation. A splendid orchestra in a hall with decent acoustics helps enormously, of course.

Nelsons conducted with authority and flair, often leaning back or just resting his left hand on the back rail of his wooden podium (brought from Boston and incongruously resembling bannisters from a Mock Tudor semi-detached).

The posthorn solo was executed to perfection, but was it a posthorn or the principal’s trumpet? The question for every trumpet player who has to play this solo is what instrument to play. It is (almost always) played offstage, so listeners must guess, even though the trumpeter walks off with his trumpet in hand. Mahler wrote the solo should be played in the style of a posthorn, being a valve-less brass or copper instrument that mail coaches used to signal the arrival of the mail in the Moravian provinces. Audiences in those days would have known the sound; Mahler probably intended to evoke an air of nostalgic melancholy. The solo can be played on a flugelhorn, which has a mellower sound than a trumpet. Principal trumpeter Tom Rolfs was the player in this performance and he was stunning. On a valve-less instrument, the top notes can easily ‘crack’ but they did not.

The sound of the posthorn reverberated around the back of the stage into the hall. It made one listener think some electronic wizardry was going on. It was perhaps too close, but it was sensational and evocative in any event.

Another accolade must go to the principal trombonist Toby Oft. Every time he played, you did not want him to stop. I gathered from my neighbour in the audience, a young Bostonian musician, that both Rolfs and Oft are ‘legends’. Any orchestra would be proud of such players.

The First Associate Concertmaster of the Orchestra, Tamara Smirnova, added some sweet solo contributions, though she found herself playing at a faster tempo than Nelsons chose for the rest of the orchestra.

The whole orchestra played gloriously throughout. The strings may not have the rich bloom of, say, the Viennese or Concertgebouw, but they are superbly drilled and the sound is not thin. The woodwind have fine principals but their chief glory, as with many American orchestras, is the brass. Their other glory, of course, is their Chief Conductor, Andris Nelsons.

Susan Graham’s contribution was also perfection. Her creamy soprano was filled with heart-felt emotion but she did not go over the top. It was most affecting.

Let me turn to the boys’ choir in the fifth movement. This is dear to me as I sang in the Highgate School Boys’ Choir in the 1960s and we sang many performances of this symphony in the Festival Hall. Sadly, I cannot remember who conducted (can any reader help?), but getting the ‘bimms’ and the ‘bamms’ in the right sequence requires concentration. It was sad to see therefore that the Kinderchor from the Gewandhaus Leipzig consisted of 40 singers, and I counted only 9 boys. Nelsons could have used the Zurich or Lucerne Boys Choir but had already used the Leipzigers in the Berlin concert and chose the easy (but more expensive) option. Where are our future male singers going to come from if boys stop singing in children’s choirs? I must say, whilst I prefer the sound of boy trebles, it made very little difference in this symphony (the use of girls’ voices in Britten’s War Requiem is another matter, however). The ladies of the Gewandhaus made a lovely sound in their angelic chorus, and it was a pleasure to hear crystal-clear High German diction in a country where rustic Swiss-German is the spoken norm.

At the end of the long first movement, there was a collective ‘phew!’ from the audience; and at the end of the entire symphony, after the brass peroration and the two timpanists had synchronized to perfection, the man behind me, probably American, exclaimed ‘Oh my God!’, which could not have been more apt. The audience rose to give Nelsons and the orchestra a standing ovation; even though I suspect that some older listeners, after sitting still for over an hour and a half, were simply glad to relieve a painful arthritic knee.

May I give you some statistics as the Lucerne Festival draws to a close, with a performance by the London Philharmonic under Marin Alsop of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Sol Gabetta and Mahler’s First Symphony. With 79,400 concertgoers attending the 2018 Summer Festival this year, the Festival reports very positive results. The 78 events for which tickets were sold had an average capacity of 89% and attracted 65,400 concertgoers, which is 800 more than the figure from last year; 14 concerts were sold out. The 32 symphony concerts had an average capacity of 90%. In addition, Lucerne Festival offered 37 free events, which drew an additional 14,000 visitors.

We sincerely hope the Bostoners and Nelsons will return to Europe next summer and continue to dazzle us.

John Rhodes 

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