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Bernd Alois ZIMMERMANN (1918-1970)
Nobody Knows de Trouble I See. Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra [18:56]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ [90:18]
Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet);
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Wiener Philharmoniker/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 28 & 29 July 2018, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.0; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Region code ABC: Subtitles English, French, German, Japanese, Korean.
Booklet English, French & German
C MAJOR 749004 Blu-ray [110:00]

A while ago – though I hadn’t realised it was as long ago as 2012 – I was present when Andris Nelsons conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in an electrifying performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (review). Subsequently, I had the good fortune to hear an off-air recording of a performance that the same forces had given a week or two earlier at the Lucerne Festival which was, if anything, finer still. I have wondered ever since whether he would record the work but he has been concentrating on other composers as far as recordings are concerned, especially Bruckner and Shostakovich. Now a live recording has arrived but oddly – and probably for contractual reasons – Nelsons is not conducting one of the two orchestras with which he is currently associated: the Boston Symphony or the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Just as he did in that Birmingham concert, Nelsons here includes a prefatory work before the Mahler symphony in the shape of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1954 trumpet concerto, which bears the title Nobody Knows de Trouble I See. Prior to taking up the baton, Nelsons was a trumpeter himself and I believe he’s been a fairly regular collaborator with Håkan Hardenberger in recent years. My colleague, Mark Berry saw them perform this same Zimmermann work in London last year (review). That concert, like the Salzburg performances preserved here, marked the centenary of the composer’s birth. I also recall seeing Hardenberger and Nelsons perform Brett Dean’s Dramatis personae (2013) when Nelsons brought the Boston Symphony to the 2015 Proms, a concert reviewed by my colleague Colin Clarke.

I may as well come clean and say straightaway that the Zimmermann concerto does nothing at all for me. That’s not to say that it’s a ‘bad’ piece – whatever that may mean – but I simply don’t understand it at all, nor do I find it remotely appealing. If you don’t know the piece then I urge you to read Mark Berry’s review referenced above; he clearly ‘gets’ the work and can describe it far better – and more fairly – than I can. The work takes its name from the well-known Spiritual and we read in Bernd Wladike’s booklet note that the melody “forms a thread through the entire work and this forms the fundamental idea.” I know the Spiritual melody very well and I’m afraid I couldn’t discern it at all. What I could discern, though, is the influence of jazz on the piece. In part that derives from the orchestral scoring, which includes a quintet of saxophones, plenty of percussion, an electric guitar and a Hammond organ. Furthermore, the composer often writes in a jazz-influenced style as, for example, at the moment when the double basses mimic the ‘slap-bass’ style. The soloist is called upon to play a part that is clearly virtuosic in its demands and in Håkan Hardenberger the piece has an ideal advocate. Throughout the piece the soloist plays almost continuously and though the duration is only just over 15 minutes Hardenberger looks physically drained at the end. Nelsons is an alert and watchful accompanist. Having viewed the performance for this assignment I think it’s highly unlikely that I will return to the piece but it’s clear that I’m in a minority for the Salzburg audience received the performance very warmly indeed.

I feel on safer ground when it comes to the Mahler. The great funeral march that is the first movement is impressively done. Nelsons projects the march episodes strongly and urgently – though by “urgently” I don’t mean he is unnecessarily hasty; he gives the music suitable weight and the urgency is inner urgency. If he displays a fault in this movement, it could be argued that he is too luxuriant in his pacing of the slow, nostalgic episodes. I’m thinking, for example, of the passage at cue 7 in the score, which is marked Sehr mässig und zuruckhaltend (Very moderate and held back). Nelsons adopts a very broad speed here and flirts with losing momentum. The material is reprised towards the end of the movement, just before the harps’ steady tread reintroduces the march for the last time. This time the slow music is simply marked Zuruckhaltend. Nelsons clearly relishes the passage to the full - you can see him moulding every phrase with loving care – but is it overdone? Perhaps. I have to say that so far when I’ve watched the performance, I’ve found it sufficiently compelling that I’m caught up in Nelsons’ overall vision of the movement, slow passages and all. However, repeated experiences in the future might find me just a little less forgiving. For the most part, though, I was gripped by this traversal of the first movement.

Evidently, Nelsons made quite a pause after the first movement - though it may not have been for the full five minutes prescribed by Mahler - because it’s at this point that the soloists enter, to applause.

The Andante moderato is very nicely done indeed. Nelsons and the VPO inflect the music beautifully and with just the relaxed charm that is needed. The performance is very much in Viennese style and Nelsons shapes the music with affection. Much the same can be said of the Scherzo. Nelsons adopts well-judged tempi and the orchestra invests the music with plenty of life. Towards the end, the premonition of the finale is at one and the same time a shock yet it seems to arise inevitably out of what we’ve heard previously in the movement.

I don’t believe I’ve heard the young Russian mezzo, Ekaterina Gubanova before, though I believe that a few years before this performance took place, she was a member of the Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. I only learnt that after experiencing this performance but it’s further evidence of her pedigree. I was very impressed with her delivery of ‘Urlicht’. The voice is full, rich and evenly produced and I liked very much the sound that she makes. Just as pleasing was her unaffected yet expressive interpretation of the song.

The huge finale opens dramatically; the viewer’s attention is gripped from the start. What follows is a vast musical fresco and I feel that Nelsons controls and unfolds it impressively. He has a very sure sense of the dramatic thrust and pacing of the movement. Only once do I think that he overplays his hand. Immediately before the brass softly and solemnly intone the ‘Resurrection’ chorale there’s a one-bar general pause. To me, it seems that Nelsons prolongs the pause far too much; you wonder if the music is ever going to resume. Otherwise, though, I was convinced by what I saw and heard. The offstage brass – first, the horns and later the trumpets – make a telling effect. The VPO plays superbly and when we reach the quick march, heralded by those two huge percussion crescendi, the orchestral response bristles with energy and intent. The grosse Appell is full of atmosphere – and Nelsons prepares for it expertly. When the choir begins to sing their sound is hushed yet distinct. Eventually, from the subdued choral sound Lucy Crowe’s soprano rises sweetly and expressively. This long passage of singing is moulded with great care by Nelsons, who conducts at this point without a stick in order to maximise the expressiveness of his direction. The two soloists both acquit themselves very well in the passage beginning ‘O Glaube!’ – Ms Gubanova is warm yet urgent at the start of the section. Nelsons builds his choir and orchestra up to an exultant fff reprise of ‘Aufersteh’n’, at which point the offstage brass have come onto the stage to reinforce the sound; the organ contributes effectively too. The final peroration is mightily impressive. I was both surprised and rather pleased that the Salzburg audience maintain quite a silence after the last chord, allowing it to decay naturally before they show their appreciation – perhaps we should import them to London for the Proms?!

Mahler’s Second is one of those works which makes its proper impact only when experienced live. A film – or even an audio recording – is likely to feel contained, notwithstanding the skill of the performers. However, the present Blu-ray disc offers an excellent opportunity to experience a live performance under domestic viewing conditions. The presentation is good: there’s nothing ‘flashy’ about the camerawork; we get a faithfully shot record of the concert. The sound is very good.

This is a pretty compelling performance of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. The orchestral playing is superb, as you’d expect, and the quality of the singing is no less fine. Andris Nelsons is in his element with this dramatic, highly charged work and he does full justice to Mahler’s amazingly imaginative score. Lest it be thought that this is simply a no-holds-barred performance, let it be remembered that the less theatrical inner movements come off very well too. When I took a look at our Masterworks Index for this work, I was mildly surprised to see that though it has received many audio recordings, video performances appear to be less plentiful than I’d expected. There’s a performance by Claudio Abbado, which I’ve seen and admire, but I don’t believe that’s available except as part of a boxed set (review). Dan Morgan was bowled over by a Riccardo Chailly performance, which I’ve not seen (review). There are two different performances led by Mariss Jansons, and that seems to be it. This Andris Nelsons performance is thus doubly welcome and I doubt that anyone investing in it will be disappointed.

John Quinn

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