United Kingdom Zimmermann and Bruckner: Håken Hardenberger (trumpet), Philharmonia Orchestra,/Andris Nelsons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 6.12.2015. (AS)
Zimmermann: Trumpet Concerto No. 1, Nobody knows de trouble I see
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor
The two works in this concert could hardly have been more dissimilar: we heard the 1954 concerto by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–1970), with its intriguing combination of jazzy elements and 12-note rows, which plays for about 15 minutes, followed by the vast late-Romantic expanse of Bruckner’s symphony, whose timing on this occasion was something over an hour and a quarter. The familiar Haas edition of the latter work was used.
In any general discussion of trumpet soloists the name of Håken Hardenberger is almost bound to crop up. He is indeed a fabulous player, and if Zimmermann’s concerto was not written for him, it suits his style and virtuoso technique perfectly. The orchestra in this work contains some interesting instruments – including three saxophones, three jazz trumpets, jazz trombone, a guitar, a Hammond organ and assorted jazz percussion. The subtitle’s quotation of the name of the well-known spiritual prepares us for a work that contains quotes from the song itself, and whose emotional content expresses antipathy to racial hatred and a desire for brotherly unity.
There isn’t a dull moment in its single movement. It teems with solo brilliance of all kinds, pungent orchestral timbres and tremendous rhythmic vitality. And it has just the right length. Zimmermann understood the value of brevity in a composition of this kind.
Andris Nelsons’ approach to the Bruckner symphony’s first movement had initially almost a feeling of exploration. The opening statements were presented calmly and straightforwardly at an easy-going tempo. But as the movement progressed so did the conductor’s use of phrase and inflection become more pronounced, very effectively so, since he did not allow any pulse variations to disturb a strong onward momentum or his overall control of the large-scale structure. The contemplative ending was beautifully managed and rounded off a most satisfying account of the movement as a whole.
Nelsons adopted a middle-of-the road tempo for the Scherzo. Some conductors feel the need to jolly things up in this movement to form a contrast with the slower moving structures that flank it. Here the rhythm was pointed clearly yet there was no feeling of haste. And the contrasts implicit in the trio sections were tellingly brought out with some lovely turns of phrase.
The enormous span of the Symphony’s third movement – usually over 25 minutes in length – and its Adagio tempo present a conductor with a great interpretative challenge. This was met by Nelsons with great skill, yet with great sensitivity. Each episode was strongly characterised with heart-easing warmth of expression, but as in the first movement one always had the feeling that inexorable and logical progress throughout the mighty structure was taking place.
At the outset of the finale Nelsons brought out very clearly Bruckner’s curious but masterly effect of the music having two tempi: a throbbing rhythmic ostinato underpinning a slow brass chorale. Again he showed great skill in pacing the movement’s strongly contrasting elements, and the final climax was overwhelming. One truly had the feeling of having been through a profound symphonic experience.