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Mahler - Symphony No. 9 in D major: Stephen Johnson (presenter), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham.  3. 2.2011 (JQ)


The Birmingham Mahler cycle, which is being spread over two years and most of which is being given by the CBSO, tonight reached the Ninth Symphony – the cycle is not being presented chronologically. The concert was one in the CBSO’s ‘Tuned In’ series, which meant that before the symphony was played the audience heard a talk that offered an extended introduction to it, illustrated by musical examples played by Andris Nelsons and the orchestra.

The introductory talk was given by Stephen Johnson, who may be familiar to readers as a frequent presenter for BBC Radio, not least for the Radio 3 series, Discovering Music. Mr Johnson is blessed with an easy, relaxed style that conceals a fine degree of scholarship, enabling him to put his musical subjects across in a natural and engaging way. I’d describe the talk he gave as informal, informed and informative. The only snag was that, with such a big subject to illustrate, the length of his talk significantly exceeded the advertised thirty minutes. In fact he spoke for some fifty minutes and while I enjoyed his discourse very much I suspect the resulting over-extended running time of the evening put a few members of the audience under severe time pressure; a few left during the last movement of the symphony, presumably to catch last trains or buses.

I thought Mr Johnson pitched his talk just right. It was sufficiently straightforward as to offer a solid introduction to those new to the symphony. However, it also offered new perspectives or information to those of us who know the symphony well – or think we do.

In the course of his talk Johnson mentioned that that Andris Nelsons and the CBSO were recording the Ninth Symphony and in fact the microphones were all in place on the platform. The way he phrased this information suggested to me that studio sessions had been taking place during the week but, in fact, I think the recording may be taken from the two live performances, of which this was the second, that the orchestra was giving on consecutive nights. If that’s the case I think it would have been sensible had an announcement been made to the audience; that might have stilled some of the persistent coughing that was a most regrettable feature of the performance. Just before starting the second movement, and having endured a veritable barrage of coughs in the moments after the first movement, Nelsons leant forward and, in a very pointed gesture, tapped the microphone stands with his baton. Sadly, the hint wasn’t taken by all and the coughing continued during the rest of the performance, although at a slightly less intense level. The nadir of the evening came in the last few moments of the finale when, as Nelsons and his players were straining every sinew to realise Mahler’s intentions for super-quiet playing, one member of the audience was seized by an explosive fit of coughing which would not have been out of place in a sanatorium. Perhaps the person concerned couldn’t help his or herself; it sounded to be a pretty severe cough. But much of the coughing that went on during the evening was, I’m afraid, just inconsiderate and it marred the performance.

The performance itself was a fine one. This was the first time that I’d seen Andris Nelsons in action. A colleague had said to me previously that he is something special and, on the evidence of this performance, I’m inclined to agree. I didn’t buy in to every aspect of his interpretation and I suspect that his approach will be more reflective in twenty years time. But he is clearly seized by the music and he galvanised the orchestra and communicated his vision of the piece to them wholeheartedly. It was very evident that he feels the music deeply and his wide range of gestures and podium gyrations – allied, I was pleased to see, to a consistently clear beat – made that clear. There is a downside to such an approach, however, in that such physicality on the podium, however sincere and spontaneous it may be, inevitably draws the listener’s eye and can be a distraction. I shall be very interested to see what I make of the performance when I hear it on CD, shorn of the visual aspect. One aspect of his conducting that registered very strongly with me was that despite his evidently acute ear for detail he never sacrificed the Big Picture through excessive attention to detail.

Nelsons and his superb orchestra brought out all the passion in the first movement. There was a great deal of ardour and commitment in the music making and the powerfully projected climaxes were distinguished by dramatic, biting playing. At times the music sounded hedonistic and truly abandoned, and surely that’s right. However, I must immediately record that the quieter passages – and there are many of them – in which Mahler’s orchestral textures are often very spare, were rendered with finesse. The last few pages were superbly controlled and Nelsons ensured that the spell remained unbroken for a good length of time after the music had ceased.

Nelsons was very successful in bringing out the sardonic, indeed waspish, humour in the second movement. The playing had tremendous attack and sounded suitably pungent – I loved the way the strings were encouraged really to dig in during the opening pages. This movement was painted by Nelsons in primary colours and was none the worse for that, but he also brought the requisite affection to the passages where Mahler more than flirts with kitsch. I loved the impish pay-off at the very end.

The Rondo Burleske featured whiplash rhythms and the playing often snarled. This was very different to the way in which the same music was delivered in a live recording conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, that I recently reviewed as a CD. I felt that Nelsons’ way was much to be preferred. Nelsons led a flamboyant account of the outer sections of the movement and here one felt he was presenting a grinning, sinister burlesque, as Mahler surely intended. The warm, nostalgic central section – where, Stephen Johnson had pointed out, the home key of D major is experienced for the last time in the symphony – was splendidly delivered. Here the strings played with great richness and depth, matched by the horn department (excellent all night and led with distinction by Elspeth Dutch). The solo trumpeter (Jonathan Holland, I presume) also made a fine contribution to these pages. When the rondo material reasserted itself Nelsons threw caution to the winds and energised his orchestra in a virtuoso display. The music took on a garish, nightmarish quality. “Hell hath no fury”, whispered my companion at the end. It was certainly exciting.

The wonderful concluding adagio opens with an extended paragraph for the strings and here the Birmingham players responded with searching, full-toned eloquence; even though my seat was well to the conductor’s left and therefore “biased” towards the violins, I could appreciate very much the firm, sonorous foundation that the cellos and basses brought to this passage. Nelsons inspired ardent playing in the extended lead-up to the movement’s climax. I did wonder in passing if there wasn’t a bit too much ardour too soon but Nelsons, clearly feeling every note with his players, kept building the tension and the climax, when it arrived, was towering. Here we experienced the most intense playing of the whole evening. Nelsons then controlled the descent from that climax very successfully. As the symphony drew to a close he demanded from his players – and got – even more concentration. In the final pages Mahler takes us to a different place, a place bathed in gentle light, and, even through the coughing, one could tell that Nelsons was fully engaged in imparting that vision.

As I said, I may not have agreed with every aspect of Andris Nelson’s approach to this great symphony but it was impossible not to be swept along by his intense vision of this masterpiece. The commitment and superb playing of the CBSO suggests that the orchestra is in good hands under his leadership. I look forward to the forthcoming CD with some impatience.


John Quinn

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