Andris Nelsons’ Mahler Again Disappoints

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dzenītis, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler: Kristine Opolais (soprano), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.10.2018. (MB)

Kristine Opolais (c) Tatyana Vlasova
Kristine Opolais (c) Tatyana Vlasova

Andris Dzenītis – Māra (United Kingdom premiere)
Tchaikovsky – The Queen of Spades Op.68: ‘I am worn out with grief’; Eugene Onegin Op.24: Polonaise and Letter Scene
Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D major

After the relative disappointment of the first of these two Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts, that disappointment relating to Andris Nelsons’ conducting rather than the orchestra itself, there came a second chance. I wish I could say that I had responded more warmly. There were, as before, sections of the concert to which I could – and did. However, Nelsons’ Mahler ultimately proved no more convincing than it had before, the final movement of the First Symphony as vulgar and uncomprehending a display as I have heard for a long time. An audience that once again seemed to value excellence of orchestral execution and sheer volume of sound rather than formal, interpretative coherence clearly felt otherwise. Again I thought of Beecham: ‘the English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes’. Perhaps Nelsons qualifies as an Englishman too, at least when it comes to Mahler.

His taste in new music seems odd too. Try as I might, I could not make anything much of Andris Dzenītis’s Māra – although, as ever, with a new work, that may well just have been my fault. Its first performance had been given by the same forces in Leipzig five days earlier; this performance certainly sounded committed and incisive. The title apparently refers to a notion of divine omnipotence: according to Joanna Wyld’s programme note, ‘the entire physical, visible, audible and tangible world, the materialisation of all spiritual power’. Dzenītis can certainly write for an orchestra in a ‘traditional’, more or less Franco-Russian way: the quarter of an hour or so piece proved ‘colourful’, ‘ritualistic’, ‘pictorial’, ‘dramatic’, and so on, in predictable, generic fashion. Certain passages grabbed the attention: repeated pitches redolent of Morse Code, repeated figures that briefly offered something intriguingly hypnotic. What it all added up to, though, I could not say. ‘Eclectic’ would be one way of putting it, so too ‘at least twice as long as it need have been’. A solo bass clarinet solo at the close may or may not have held some programmatic meaning. According to the note, the piece allowed ‘runes to become visible in the score’. Perhaps they were audible too; I am afraid I have no idea.

Tchaikovsky made much more sense to me, Kristine Opolais on superlative form. In Liza’s third-act arioso from The Queen of Spades and the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, she truly brought to life her characters, without context, scenery, or titles. One knew and felt what Liza and Tatiana meant, what their plight was – and could have taken dictation, verbal or musical, from her. Hers were fully gestural performances too, very much those of a classic singing actress. The Gewandhaus Orchestra ‘spoke’ splendidly too: this, after all, is an orchestra that plays for the Leipzig Opera as well as the concert hall (and the Thomaskirche). If only Nelsons and/or Opolais had not indulged in quite so extreme gear changes towards the end of the Letter Scene, and if only he had not driven the Polonaise so hard, these would have been ideal performances. No one, however, would have been seriously disappointed.

The first movement of the Mahler symphony opened with great promise: opening string harmonics (and their later repetition) spot on, without sounding clinical, woodwind full of colour and character, offstage brass as well balanced as I can recall. There was first-rate audience bronchial interjection too, for which many thanks. Later on, an overall freshness of spirit was apt, winning, invigorating. Antiphonally placed first and second violins worked a magic that was little short of revelatory, whilst the tender tone of the Leipzig horn consort was simply to die for. Soon, however, Nelsons began to mould the music excessively, leaving one longing for the ideal of a Kubelík. (Few are the occasions when that conductor proves anything but ideal!) Climaxes grew more and more brash, in quite un-Mahlerian fashion, once again suggestive of a conductor more at home with Shostakovich. Formal coherence had soon gone quite out of the window too.

The Ländler likewise opened well: as vigorous, as earthy as I have heard, the Leipzig strings digging deep indeed. As it progressed, however, it seemed too determined by rhythm, too little by harmony: this should not be a zero-sum game. There was alienation in the Trio, if not quite enough, the material often sounding oddly close to Bruckner. Irony does not seem Nelsons’ strong suit. Nor was it so in the third movement, its weird echoes of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream apparently in spite of the conductor rather than on his account. There was no gainsaying, however, the excellence of the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s soloists here. It was a pity that Nelsons pulled around the Klezmer and other contrasting material so wildly; soon it made no sense at all, a mere succession of moments. One could hardly have wanted a louder, more emphatic opening to the finale; many of us indeed might have wished for something less ear-splitting. Such, however, was to be the order of the day, with extreme contrast that had the audience ‘excited’ in its seats. I felt merely bludgeoned. Had there been something in the way of formal coherence, it would not have been quite so bad; in its absence, this glorious movement felt interminable. Bizarre tempo changes added further frustration. What a waste of a great orchestra.

Mark Berry

2 thoughts on “Andris Nelsons’ Mahler Again Disappoints”

  1. Mark,

    Some of your comments may well be valid but I think you have vastly over reacted to this interpretation.

    I agree with John’s comment above and I would add that I liked Nelson’s energy and that you give the impression you are one of those reviewers who always knows better than the conductor and everyone else!

    Sorry but that is how it reads,


    [Edited comment]

  2. I, too, was at that concert with two friends and we all agreed it was one of the best things we had heard in years. I am a regular contributor to the review section and a MWI editor and consider myself a real Mahler aficionado; it just goes to show how diverse responses to musical performance can be. We found Nelsons’ admittedly interventionist interpretation absolutely thrilling; anything closer to “formal coherence” would simply have made it anodyne and restrained – the last thing you need in such music. There is, if I may say so, an implication in your review that anyone who enjoyed such an approach has vulgar, unrefined tastes – so be it; I am glad that I was so “excited” and sorry that you were not, as, obviously my friends and I derived far more from the experience than you.


    Ralph Moore


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