United Kingdom Zimmermann and Mahler: Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.10.2018. (MB)
Zimmermann – Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’
Mahler – Symphony No.5
One can only be grateful for the performances that Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s centenary year has occasioned. This was my second hearing this year of his Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’, the first also having been from Håkan Hardenberger, albeit in Vienna, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under John Storgårds. One fears that 2019 will bring nothing at all, but then, as things stand, 2019 seems destined to bring catastrophes far worse than that. We should, I suppose, enjoy the visits of fellow European orchestras whilst we can; soon enough it will be wall-to-wall Vera Lynn tribute acts, a spot of scavenging at the local rubbish dump, and the occasional rat thrown our way by hedge-fund billionaires for gastronomic delectation.
The Zimmermann was certainly the more successful performance on the programme, not only for Hardenberger, but also for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and, especially, its new Kapellmeister, Andris Nelsons. Its opening was taut, full of suspense, germinative – and not just the opening. Hardenberger, virtuoso musician that he is, played his part as the repertoire work it is for him and should be the rest for us. Both the pleasure and the difficulty of giving birth to the full chorale/spiritual tune were apparent and, crucially, felt. The menace of dark jazz sounds and the fantasy of ballet, and vice versa, paved the way for a full-scale riot of orchestral polystylism, tensions boiling over into chaos somewhat beyond the ‘Ed Miliband variety’, if perhaps less alien, alas, to those of us remaining, as it were, in the land of Theresa May and her multiple hostile environments. Zimmermann’s instrumental doublings, triplings, and so forth sounded more revelatory than I can recall, every bit as integral to work and performance as if they had come from Bach or Bartók. Swing rhythms did their work, of course, but so too did quite magnificent control of the orchestral volume, as if he were twisting the dial on a hi-fi system, by Nelsons. There was something uncanny to that evocation of both ‘real’ and the ‘recorded’ things: a positioning of ourselves and our music in what Zimmermann would later call the ‘sphericity of time’. Hardenberger’s final statement of the spiritual in full bore witness, as it must. But who in our time, any more than in Zimmermann’s, will listen, truly listen?
The Nelsons way with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony proved remarkably popular with the audience, many of whom rose to their feet at the close. I could not help but recall Thomas Beecham’s quip that the English do not like music, but rather the noise that it makes. It had some wonderful moments, even passages, but I struggled in vain to hear a sense of irony, a sense of Vienna, even, for some of the time, much sense of coherence. This is an extraordinarily difficult symphony to bring off convincingly; not the least of the conductors I have heard fall considerably short here has been Daniel Barenboim. Of the many intimations of the Second Viennese School, I heard nothing.
Nelsons, not unlike Barenboim, seemed determined to turn it into something that is not, albeit in this case something stranded between a generic nineteenth-century symphony and Shostakovich.
The first movement perhaps fared worst. Insofar as there were a basic tempo at all, it felt incredibly slow: quite a trudge, yet it was never clear to what end. Then suddenly, an eruptive first episode went to the other extreme, contrast entirely supplanting connection. Symphonic thread, what symphonic thread? Nelsons seemed intent on micromanaged moulding of phrases too, reminiscent of Simon Rattle over the past few years. Conductors as different as Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez have shown that there are many ways to have this music work as a symphony; Nelsons, apparently, had other ideas. That said, a few liminal passages – a magical timpani solo, for instance – truly told: in themselves, though, without necessary context. The second movement proved similarly contrast, except back to front in terms of material, which is as it should be; it also proved more coherent, if still less so than one would have hoped. Again, it was Mahler at his most introverted who convinced most. Nelsons’ brutalising, proto-Shostakovich sound of a brass-led orchestra at full throttle simply sounded mistaken to my ears.
Nelsons certainly grasped, however, the structural role of the third movement, the symphony’s second ‘part’, its ambiguity relished. Even here, however, a tendency to hold back phrases to no particular end sounded indulgent and, frankly, irritating. The movement’s closing bars, taken hell for leather without evident preparation, proved merely bizarre, however well played.
The Adagietto was taken at an unfashionably slow speed, or so it felt. (I have never been one to consult my watch on such matters.) Nelsons seemed determined to make a meal out of it, often entirely losing its sense, however illusory, of loving simplicity. However gorgeous its final climax may have sounded, I could not help but suspect he might have preferred it to have been by Bruckner. The skies well and truly lifted for the finale, the problem being that there had been almost no preparation in the preceding movement. The Gewandhaus Orchestra relished the controlled abandon of Mahler’s neo-Bachian counterpoint, his good humour – or perhaps his impression thereof. Best of all, the movement unfolded without mannerism. Did the performance add up to more than the sum of its parts, though? At that, as perhaps at our present, seemingly hopeless worldly condition, Mahler laughed. He, after all, knew what it was to be, in that celebrated anti-Semitic phrase, a ‘citizen of nowhere’.