United Kingdom Berg, Mahler. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.2.2015 (JQ)
Berg – Three Pieces for Orchestra
Mahler – Symphony No 6 in A minor
A few nights ago Andris Nelsons was in London to conduct the Philharmonia in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (review). This evening Birmingham got his interpretation of Mahler’s next symphony and, before it, music by Berg which may only take just over 20 minutes to perform – approximately 24 minutes here – but which is still hugely demanding on both the performers and the listener.
Putting Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra alongside Mahler’s Sixth was a shrewd piece of programming for a number of reasons. Both scores require a vast orchestra but, more importantly, there is some kinship between these Berg pieces and Mahler for, as Richard Bratty pointed out in his programme note, Berg began to compose them in 1913 some months after hearing the first performance of Mahler’s Ninth when he had fallen under the spell, particularly, of that symphony’s magnificent and searching first movement. The Pieces were Berg’s tribute to Mahler and I suspect it’s no coincidence that the third of them, ‘Marsch’, contains four enormous hammer blows, similar to the twin blows that we experience in the finale of Mahler’s Sixth. As I listened to this performance I found myself wondering whether, had he lived another ten or twenty years, Mahler might have composed similar music for in the first movement of his Ninth he pushes the bounds of Romantic tonal music well towards the limits and arguably Berg takes up that particular baton.
I’m afraid, however, that I’m not the person to comment with any authority on this performance of Berg’s work. Over the years, try as I may, I’ve never been able to unlock the music of the Second Viennese School. It’s music that I fail to comprehend, still less to love. I’m sure the fault is mine and perhaps one day I’ll ‘get it’, though after nearly fifty years of listening seriously to music I rather doubt it will now happen. I’m sure that these Berg pieces are very clever and ingenious but I simply can’t discern the structure or what the music is ‘about’; to me it’s just textures – and in this turbulent music quite a lot of sound and fury signifying…..what? I simply don’t know. All I can report is that the performance seemed to be scrupulously controlled by Andris Nelsons and played by the CBSO with great proficiency and commitment. Though the several huge climaxes in the score were delivered with tremendous power there were also many quiet passages of evident subtlety in which the playing evidenced no little refinement.
Mahler’s Sixth has been the cause of no little controversy in the last few decades as musicians and musicologists argue over the ordering of the second and third movements. Now is not the time or place to go into that controversy though I will say that for a number of reasons I’ve always preferred to hear the Scherzo second, though I recognise and fully respect the strength of the argument that the Andante should come second. Tonight I was pleased that Andris Nelsons gave us the Scherzo second though as I’ll explain, inadvertently, in some respects his performance gave support to the view that it should come third.
Nelsons began the first movement with great energy, as the tempo marking requires. It’s a difficult tempo to judge: take it too quickly and the music sounds hectic but if the speed is too slow with too much weight the impression is of a weary trudge, as in Sir John Barbirolli’s recordings. I thought Nelsons judged the pace very well; it was brisk and thrusting. Later, the second theme, the ‘Alma’ theme, surged ardently. Within the first few minutes it was evident that the CBSO were on their collective mettle: the playing was razor-sharp, the rhythms taut and strongly articulated. As in the Berg there was tonal weight a-plenty when required but the frequent passages of more delicate music were delivered with sensitivity. In this first movement, amid an all-round excellent display from the orchestra, the expanded horn section was often in full cry and it was good to see Elspeth Dutch restored to her place leading the section. This symphony gives the principal horn a great deal of important solo work and she was fully up to Mahler’s challenges as, indeed, were all the orchestra’s principals over the course of the evening.
The development section of the first movement was very strongly characterised by Nelsons whose conducting and gesticulation constantly urged his orchestra on. What is at several points the deliberately grotesque nature of Mahler’s orchestration came out pungently. Above all the performance was full of tension, so much so that the cowbells episode came as something of an emotional relief, though even in this passage Nelsons did not suffer the intensity to lessen. The first movement lasted some 24 minutes yet it seemed to go by in a flash; Nelsons conducted it, as it seemed, in one tremendous sweep.
In the brief pause after the first movement I scribbled in my notebook “could see argument for Andante second.” After such blistering intensity part of me craved the relative relaxation of Mahler’s slow movement. That hurried jotting proved to be prophetic. The Scherzo was very sharply etched by Nelsons; indeed, it was as sharply profiled a reading as I can recall hearing. He and his players brought out the wild side in Mahler’s scoring with telling early contributions from the bass clarinet – an instrument to which I suspect Nelsons is partial; he often brings out its line more tellingly than other conductors – and from the high winds. The Trio is marked Altväterisch (‘old fashioned’) and here I thought that Nelsons treated the music perhaps just a little too graphically. The tempo was quite deliberate – arguably just a bit too steady – and the degree to which the music was accented seemed dangerously close to mannerism. It was, I think, perhaps a little too Gothic. That said, one could not fault the conductor’s attention to detail. The Trio behind us, the turbulent scherzo swept on, very powerfully projected by the CBSO at Nelsons’ urgent prompting. It was an extremely vivid and potent performance of the movement.
The first two movements combined played for just under forty minutes and the tension was pretty relentless. It is this that made me wonder, for once, if those who argue that Mahler’s own performance practice in placing the scherzo third may be right. I still think that the order in which Nelsons – and many other conductors – place the inner movements is preferable but after so much intensity on this occasion one craved something of a respite.
So, more than usually the Andante came as balm. At the start the music was presented gently and with innocence. The CBSO strings were silky while there were some admirable woodwind and horn solos to relish. The refinement of the playing was a delight and Nelsons shaped the music in a very caring fashion. The sweeping climax, when it came, was passionately delivered but the hallmark of this very fine performance was lyrical sweetness.
Thus refreshed, we embarked on the thirty-minute-long finale. This extraordinary movement received an edge-of-the-seat performance. After playing Mahler for nearly an hour already, and the Berg before that, one could have forgiven the CBSO if they had shown any tiredness in this marathon finale but they did not. Not only did the orchestra retain their technical proficiency but also they maintained the intensity demanded of them by Mahler and by their conductor. This was truly a tour de force by the CBSO. Nelsons drove the main allegro pretty hard – but not excessively so. In the midst of all the tumult Mahler gives some brief respite by revisiting the nostalgia previously induced by the sound of Alpine cowbells. However, not only was the respite brief but also Nelsons maintained the tension and, to be honest, I felt there was a sense of foreboding in these pages: what Mahler has done here is to give us a brief glimpse of happier times before sweeping away those memories and that’s what Nelsons conveyed. The two hammer-blow climaxes were terrifying in their power and after the second one Nelsons confronted us with a maelstrom as the music seethed and boiled. At the very end the low brass intoned the funeral rites before, in the words of annotator Gavin Plomley, the major-key/minor-key motto of the symphony “pitilessly.. drives the final nail into the coffin.”
As the music dissolved into black nothingness Nelsons and his players held the moment for a long time so that, mercifully, there was no risk of premature applause to mar the end of this gripping performance.