An Overall Lack of Cohesiveness Mars Andris Nelsons’ Approach to Mahler’s Fifth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Gruber & Mahler: Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 22.2.2015 (CS)


HK Gruber: Aerial
Mahler: Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor


During the tense opening moments of HK Gruber’s mercurial trumpet concerto, Aerial, soloist Håkan Hardenberger and the players of the Philharmonia Orchestra seemed to be commencing an exploratory journey, guided by Andris Nelsons’ probing baton, through shifting timbres and registers.  The gradual accumulation and expansion was punctuated by weighty double bass pizzicatos and penetrating xylophone, giving a hint of direction and form while Hardenberger sustained searching, quiet trumpet tones.

There was a strong sense of embryonic tension, as the orchestral timbres became more vibrant and the soloist’s flourishes – performed on trumpet in C and piccolo trumpet in B-flat – grew more exuberant.  The technical demands upon the soloist are never relieved, and as Hardenberger rose to the stratosphere for the quietest of sustained high cries, the insistent pressure was palpable: cello pizzicatos provided an underlying ‘spring’; unwavering violin lines were sweetly intoned.  There were echoes of Debussy in the culminating bars of the first section, ‘Done with the compass – Done with the chart!, before the much-needed relief was granted with the vigorous cross-rhythmic pulses of , ‘Gone Dancing’, which generated excitement and menace.

Required to play also cow horn and a trumpet with the slide removed, Hardenberger was unruffled by the unalleviated technical demands of the concerto.  Frequently driven to the highest register, his tone was ever sure and appealing; rasping crescendos and trills were despatched with controlled vigour; rapid passagework flowed with ease; he even managed to play and sing simultaneously in the uneasy opening episode.  Moreover, a lyrical quality is not wholly absent from Gruber’s score, and Hardenberger showed how easily he can slip between bright brassiness and the mellowness of jazz.

Nelsons was a sprightly figure on the podium, crouching, dancing and swaying in response to the music’s varying moods.  Despite the large forces, the textures remained transparent, and the clarity and restraint of the conductor’s approach made the exuberant outbursts more telling.  He goaded the Philharmonia to a rousing climax, conjuring a ‘primitive’ energy which was complemented by joyfully exuberant percussion.  Hardenberger is the dedicatee of Gruber’s concerto and gave the premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in July 1999 (with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Järvi).  His pleasure in both the work and the performance was evident and his communication of the concerto’s wit, as well as its more reflective modes, was infectious.

I wasn’t so convinced by Nelsons’ reading of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.  There were passages which revealed intelligent reflection and thoughtful interpretative decision-making; but there were other episodes where Nelsons seemed to lose focus: tempi were at times unpredictable and the ensemble unsettled.

Principal trumpeter Alistair Mackie showed courage and precision in announcing the opening of the Trauermarsch – indeed Mackie played with confident brio throughout the symphony.  But his tone was sometimes a little harsh – rather more brassy than funereal at the start – and as the symphony unfolded I found the brass section overly forceful, the tone veering too often towards coarseness.  Peter Smith’s tuba made its presence felt rather too palpably.

In the first movement, Nelsons did procure an elegiac mood from his string players, as with the first pianissimo statement of the plaintive march and later the soaring melody for violas and celli, without ever lapsing into sentimentality.  The ‘trio’ erupted like a swirling wild dance and there was a latent anger underlying the return of the march.

The brass outbursts at the start of the second movement were too rowdy for my liking, though the woodwind showed impressive ensemble and fluidity in the complex contrapuntal exchanges.  This was genuine ‘chamber’ playing – a real sense of players listening and conversing – and there was some excellent playing from the first clarinet, James Burke, and first bassoon, Amy Harman.  In the increasingly stormy interchanges Nelsons’ gestures became ever more agitated, even frantic, as if he had to use literal force of movement to ‘pull’ his players with him.  This was unsettling in terms of both the ensemble, which rocked at times, and the overall structure of the movement, as the various contrasting sections ground against each other and the form of the movement was not clearly articulated.  Things came back together at the close, though, and the drive to the conclusion was compellingly swift.

After a slight ‘trip’ at the start, the Scherzo got underway with an insouciant swing.  But, again there was some raggedness.  Mahler wrote to his beloved Alma: ‘The scherzo is the very devil of a movement. I see it is in for a peck of troubles! Conductors for the next fifty years will all take it too fast and make nonsense of it; and the public—oh, heavens, what are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are forever being engendered?’  And, it seemed to me that this was just the problem with which Nelsons grappled and which he did not wholly overcome.  As he leapt about on the podium, both feet airborne, I feared that the music might become similarly adrift from its moorings.  That said, there was fine playing from individual players and sections, not least from the principal horn, Katy Woolley, who carefully noted the details and graded some beautiful diminuendos at the phrase endings.  Nelsons did suggest Mahler’s evolving kaleidoscope of ‘new worlds’ though: the dancing theme was by turn hesitant then brazen, tinged with pathos then fury. The coda surged from darkness to light and at the conclusion of the movement, the conductor leaned on the podium rail, evidently spent from his exertions.

Pleasingly, the Adagietto did not indulge in schmaltziness; indeed, the strings’ tone was restrained throughout, although small surges in the cellos and bass did add warmth.  While the gentility and reserve of Nelsons’ approach made for a delicate, calm opening, there was little romantic enrichment in what followed, resulting in an overly distant and dispassionate ambience.  Moreover, I felt that the balance at the start between the elongated string lines and the harp’s interjections was skewed in favour of the latter, and there were some occasional intonation problems in the high-lying violin melodies.

The contrapuntal complications of the fifth movement were not fully mastered, and the relationship between the contributions made by the different sections to the whole was not always clearly delineated.  Nelsons seemed to need every ounce of physical strength to compel his orchestra forward, and the energy waned at times, although the final blaze was triumphant.

So, I felt that Nelsons did not convey a convincing grasp of the emotional and structural scope of this symphony – which, admittedly, must present a conductor which some of the greatest challenges – but some fine individual and sectional playing did compensate for the overall lack of cohesiveness.

Claire Seymour

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