Richard WAGNER
: Overture [13:19]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
: Dance of the Seven Veils [11:54]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 [67:39]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 2 September 2011, KKL, Luzern, Concerthall
Region Code 0; Picture Format NTSC 16:9; Sound Format DTS 5:1
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.
John Quinn
A remarkable concert, splendidly captured on DVD.