This concert, given in the splendid modern concert hall of the
Culture and Congress Center, was recorded live at the 2011 Lucerne
Festival. I’ve previously seen several DVDs of Claudio
Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and I can give this
present DVD no higher praise than to say that the music making
preserved here is of the same exalted standard that I’ve
experienced from Abbado.
The programme is a little odd and the rather superficial note
by Barbara Eckle is of little help beyond suggesting vaguely
that Nelsons wished to contrast the extrovert pieces by Wagner
and Strauss with the “sublimation of emotion” -
whatever that may mean - in the Shostakovich. However, let’s
not waste time trying to discern a shape behind the programming.
The Wagner is done very well. It’s evident from his facial
expressions that Nelsons delights in the Rienzi’s Prayer
theme, which he takes pretty broadly - though the sumptuous,
aristocratic playing of the Concertgebouw’s string choir
justifies that indulgence. There’s not a lot one can do
with the tub-thumping, Weber-esque allegro music except
to play it for all it’s worth and Nelsons does just that.
He leads a vivid, red-blooded account of the Dance of the
Seven Veils, helped by some colourful and suitably seductive
paying by the orchestra: the principal flute and oboe players
offer particularly delightful contributions. Again, it’s
evident that the conductor is relishing the music and the response
of the Concertgebouw’s players.
Smiles are absent from Nelsons’ face at the start of the
symphony, and rightly so; this is music with a very serious,
indeed grim countenance. Right from the outset of the massive
first movement - which plays for 25:35 in this performance -
Nelsons exerts the control that is vital in this spare, intense
music. The long, glacial opening paragraphs, dominated by the
strings, are sustained with supreme concentration. Gradually
Nelsons and his players ratchet up the tension as the music
moves inexorably towards the first climax. This is a gripping
account of the movement; one’s attention is held and never
slips. When it arrives the towering main climax, underpinned
by menacing drum rolls, is shattering, as the composer intended.
The extended baleful cor anglais threnody that follows - superbly
played here - maintains the tension even though the decibel
count has reduced to minimal levels; that’s a remarkable
achievement by Shostakovich. Eventually the movement peters
out in exhaustion.
The motor rhythms in the second movement are splendidly executed.
This is blatant, strutting music, surely depicting sardonically
a war machine. The bite and vigour of the Concertgebouw’s
playing under Nelsons’ committed direction realises the
composer’s intentions to perfection. The brutal menace
of the third movement is conveyed no less successfully and the
trumpet-led galop in the middle of the movement is expertly
done. When the colossal climax arrives one has the sense that
the runaway music has run at full tilt into a forbidding rock
face and then the momentum drains away and we are left to contemplate
the bleak, forbidding wastes of the impassive passacaglia that
follows. This is a movement that requires utmost control of
dynamics and total concentration on the part of the conductor
and all the players. That’s exactly what happens here.
The music is almost imperceptible at times, so hushed is the
playing. In fact, both individually and collectively, the RCO
is superb in the way the players sustain the soft dynamics.
There’s some tremendously sensitive playing by the principal
horn and by the clarinettists. The performance is quite breathtaking
as Nelsons and his players summon up a vision of a wasteland
comparable to the one that can be experienced in the last movement
of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony.
The finale finds Shostakovich in enigmatic mode. Surely, the
Soviet authorities were expecting their leading symphonist to
come up with a symphony whose conclusion celebrated the heroic
Soviet military and their repulse of the Nazi invasion. Instead
what they got was the desolate passacaglia followed by a movement
which, while ostensibly lighter in tone at times is still very
far from a victory celebration. The music begins in what might
seem a relaxed vein after the rigours of the fourth movement
but peer beneath the surface veneer and there’s little
genuine optimism. To make matters worse - for those seeking
optimism - eventually Shostakovich arrives at an anguished and
extended reprise of the grinding climax from the first movement.
What, then, is the listener to make of the sardonic passage
for bass clarinet and solo violin that follows immediately afterwards?
Talk about “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an
enigma”. It’s interesting to see the impish look
on the face of Andris Nelsons as he launches into that bass
clarinet/violin passage; I wonder what he makes of it? Whatever
the meaning may or may not be, the passage is marvellously delivered
by the two RCO players, which is entirely in keeping with the
superb standard of solo playing on display throughout the whole
performance. The symphony ends on a questioning, uncertain note
and this strange, hushed music comes over most atmospherically
here; thankfully the audience maintain their collective concentration
and there’s a long silence after the music has died away
before the well-merited ovation begins.
This is a gripping, magnetic account of one of Shostakovich’s
finest symphonic utterances. From start to finish the RCO offers
peerless playing that seems completely in tune with their conductor’s
vision of the piece. As for Nelsons, this is another significant
achievement in his recording career. Up to now I’ve only
seen him conduct when sitting in the stalls - in other words,
he’s had his back to me. Seeing him now from the front
it’s fascinating to watch how he communicates with the
orchestra through gestures and facial expressions. This concert
offers further confirmation that Andris Nelsons is a major talent.
The audiences in Birmingham should make the most of him for
surely it will not be too long before one of the world’s
leading orchestras snaps him up.
It only remains to say that the camera work is excellent, offering
unobtrusive but very interesting and varied perspectives on
the performers. The sound quality is very good and people who
play DVDs through their hi-fi system will get even better results
than I did, I’m sure. In short, the technical presentation
is fully worthy of this remarkable concert.