Germany Mahler: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor), Berlin Musikfest 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin 5.9.15 (MC)
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 (1903/04)
A full house at the Philharmonie welcomed the visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons to the Musikfest Berlin, rapidly being acknowledged as one of finest classical music events anywhere in the world. Under its music director Andris Nelsons the Boston orchestra is unquestionably recapturing its stellar reputation from the halcyon days of Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch. It was good to see fellow conductor Michael Tilson Thomas take his seat in the body of the hall for the concert.
The inspiration of artists is often at its greatest in times of hardship and suffering. Gustav Mahler seemed to recognise the inevitability of tragic events in his life, although at the time of writing his Sixth Symphony everything seemed rosy. His family life with Alma and his daughters was contented, he held the prestigious post of music director at the Vienna Court Opera and his music was receiving increased attention. Yet it seems as if Mahler was experiencing an inner sense of dark foreboding while creating his Sixth Symphony, a shadowy and antagonistic score, which the composer labelled as ‘the Tragic’. The great German conductor Bruno Walter, a younger associate of Mahler, described the Sixth as “bleakly pessimistic; it reeks of the bitter cup of human life.” As if foreshadowing his life events like a premonition within a year of completing the Sixth Symphony Mahler lost his daughter Maria to scarlet fever and was diagnosed with heart disease.
It seemed strangely poignant seeing Andris Nelsons standing on the podium at the Philharmonie Berlin conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra not the Berliner Philharmonic, having gone head to head with Kiril Petrenko in his unsuccessful bid for election of chief conductor at Berlin. If there was any disappointment it didn’t show as Nelsons, in his own inimitable way, just got on with the job.
From the first bar till the last Nelsons with the visiting Boston Symphony seemed like an elite driver of a top performance car achieving heights of music excellence rarely achieved. It is some years since I heard any performance that combined so impeccably the elements of musicality, vitality, precision, expression and engagement.
Hard driven, the opening movement was remarkable for its resoluteness and energy. The yearning passion generated on the high strings sent a shiver down the spine. At times I thought Maestro Nelsons was going to fall off the podium such was his enthusiasm with the baton. Although relishing the biting drama and sheer excitement of the Scherzo as a respite I welcomed the temperature cooling between the climaxes. Nelsons took the Andante as slow as he dared, achieving a remarkably inspiring outcome. Never before have I experienced such a stunning effect as the heart wrenching melodies played on a gloriously warm bed of strings. Indeed it almost felt as though time was standing still. In the Finale the mood changed immediately to one of an icy chill complete with a profound sense of menace. As Nelsons requested his Boston players delivered a punchy, high voltage level of intensity rarely achieved in the concert hall. It would be remiss not to mention the beauty and characterful wind playing yet all the other sections also deserve great credit in this magnificent team performance. Fingers crossed that the concert, which was being recorded for later broadcast, will result in a commercial release.
In short this was a quite special, awe-inspiring performance of a great work that will live long in the memory. Any chance to attend a concert by the Boston Symphony under Andris Nelsons must not be missed!