Zimmermann’s Intriguing Concerto and Bruckner’s Most Majestic Symphony

United KingdomUnited 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.

Alan Sanders

3 thoughts on “Zimmermann’s Intriguing Concerto and Bruckner’s Most Majestic Symphony”

  1. Rather than ‘the feeling of having been through a profound symphonic experience’ of Alan sanders, I found Nelson’s Bruckner 8 a rather depressing experience. The first movement was hardly ‘Allegro moderato’ having little sense of forward movement, and why did Mr Nelsons find it necessary to mar any sense of symphonic coherence by making an unmarked ‘Rallentando’ in the dialogue between oboe and Wagner tubas, initiating the vast development section? The scherzo lacked rhythmic sharpness, and at times ensemble was messy, with a late timpani entry in the first exposition. Bruckner instructs the great ‘Adagio’ to be slow but not to drag (‘doch nicht schleppend’), but with Nelsons it did just that as the movement developed. The great C major peroration coda was impressive in a rather meretricious way, but it sounded tacked-on having little sense of having developed organically from the previous symphonic discourse. Mr Nelson’s rostrum antics; bending his body backwards and forwards, and at one point becoming airborne and adding his own percussive effect, must have been a distraction for the orchestra – and why did he dispense with his baton in the last movement, the most episodic movement, where one would have thought a baton was most needed?

    • Agree more with Alan than Geoff! Didn’t find anything a “drag” or “messy”, and some beautifully intense playing from the Philharmonia strings.
      But Geoff, you may wish to know that Andris had no choice but to conduct without a baton in the final movement as it splintered and flew over his head and into the second row of the audience, a little into the third movement. Guess perhaps you weren’t watching him as closely as you may think ;-)

  2. I must reply to Izzy. By the last movement I was certainly watching Nelsons less; his rostrum antics had by that time become excruciatingly tiresome in the Simon Rattle manner. Can you imagine the likes of Boult, Monteux, Klemperer and Skrowaczewski breaking their baton? Real vigour and physical exertion should be the prerogative of the orchestra, not the conductor. It is also insulting for the orchestra to have someone (who is paid far, far more than them) jumping about, grimacing and indulging in all manner of rostrum antics having little to do with the music. I agree with Arturo Toscanini who saw conductors who adopt ‘an antic disposition’ as Pagliaccis, clowns. And I cannot agree with the idea that Nelsons had ‘no choice’ when he broke his baton but to conduct with his hands. I saw Solti break his baton in a vigorous gesture (with no ‘antic disposition’), in the break between movements the leader handed him a new baton. Having a spare baton, or two was standard practice going back to the days of Nickisch and von Bülow (and especially at Bayreuth where many batons have met their end). I will not write at length about Nelsons’s dreadful performance of Bruckner’s 8th, it would take up too much space! My main criticism is that, as stated in my response, the performance lacked symphonic structure, coherence; it had no sense of symphonic growth development and unity; and no sense of the thematic interconnectivity between each movement. And as I said the final great peroration sounded loud and tacked on. With the current Philharmonia there is certainly no comparison with the Philharmonia when Klemperer was in charge. Then it sounded more like a great German/Austrian orchestra, with a luminous depth sonority in the lower registers, with a contrasting finesse in the mid and higher registers. I attended a Klemperer Bruckner 8 in 1964 were the structural grasp was total. Here the great coda had a rock solid bass and a triumphant tonal magnificence which was overwhelming. I also heard/saw the likes of Horenstein, Kempe, Kubelik, Jochum, Albrecht, Wand (on video), Haitink, Solti among others. They were all very different , but they all had in common a complete structural grasp of the monumentality of this great symphonic statement – all sadly lacking with Mr Nelsons and the current Philharmonia.

    Geoff Diggines


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