sun 24/05/2020

Hardenberger, Philharmonia, Nelsons, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Hardenberger, Philharmonia, Nelsons, RFH

Hardenberger, Philharmonia, Nelsons, RFH

Nelsons' Bruckner fails to convince

Håkan Hardenberger: Effortless virtuosityMarco Borggreve

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Nobody knows de trouble I see is a popular concerto, but it’s an unlikely hit. Zimmermann maintains a distanced relationship with the spiritual on which the work is based, and, while there are jazz elements too, this is a long way from crossover.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Nobody knows de trouble I see is a popular concerto, but it’s an unlikely hit. Zimmermann maintains a distanced relationship with the spiritual on which the work is based, and, while there are jazz elements too, this is a long way from crossover. Zimmermann maintains his modernist/serialist perspective throughout, and all the jazz ideas – the trombone glissandos, the sax section replacing the French horns, the vaguely improvisatory trumpet writing – are configured within a strict and austere single-movement structure.

Fortunately, both trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger and conductor Andris Nelsons (pictured below, image Marco Borggreve) have the measure of this music, giving a performance that fully acknowledges both the composer’s desire to connect with the radical jazz of the 1950s, and the loyalty to modernist conventions that prevent him from doing so. Hardenberger seemed more constrained than usual, effortlessly virtuosic, but without any flamboyant displays. The work has a pervasively dark mood that Hardenberger conveyed well, especially in the flat, broad tone that he applied. The orchestra is occasionally required to play the big band, with brass outbursts, and even a Hammond organ break at one point. But nothing here ever sounded laidback or casual. This was a performance fully in keeping with the spirit of the music, but what dark and unyielding spirit that is.

The Bruckner Eighth Symphony in the second half seemed a more attractive proposition, but failed to deliver.  Nelsons’ approach to Bruckner is unusual. Where most conductors maintain a firm grip on the music’s large scale structure and progress while shaping individual phrases more intuitively, Nelsons puts all his structural rigour and energy into foreground concerns. So phrases are rarely allowed to play out at a natural pace, and cadences are frequently rushed or swallowed up into the texture. Even from the very opening of the work, the dotted rhythm theme in the lower strings sounded hectored and rushed, and most of what followed was very similar.

The second movement scherzo suffered least from Nelsons’ approach, and the steady pace, combined with a good bass tone from the lower strings, gave the music an appropriate sense of mechanistic propulsion. Adding a third harp helped to bring out their textures in the Trio and in the first part of the Adagio. But the remainder of the third movement was torpedoed by Nelsons’ erratic tempos, often speeding up the music simply because he didn’t seem to know what else to do with it. He used the Haas edition, an interesting and unusual choice. The main difference between this and the more standard Nowak is that many of the cuts to the Adagio and finale, which Bruckner himself sanctioned, have been opened out. But Nelsons failed to make a case for the longer Adagio, especially in the rambling and incoherent coda. So too with the finale, which also suffered from a lack of structural rigour and any real sense of direction.

None of this was helped by the surprisingly poor playing of the Philharmonia. Violin tone was weak throughout, especially in the Adagio, ensemble in the woodwinds was poor, the timpani was all but inaudible in the scherzo (although more prominent in the finale), and the brass tone at all the climaxes was ugly, with the trumpets frequently sharp.

This same orchestra has recently been giving stunning Bruckner performances under Christoph von Dohnányi, making Nelsons’ misjudged reading all the more frustrating. When it comes to Wagner, Mahler and Shostakovich, he’s a natural, but Bruckner remains a blind spot. Nelsons has recently been named Gewandhauskapellmeister, an appointment that comes with a heavy dose of Bruckner. Here’s hoping Leipzig audiences will be more convinced than I was.


Hardenberger gave a performance fully in keeping with the dark, unyielding spirit of Zimmermann’s concerto


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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A grossly unfair review of the Bruckner, on a number of fronts. First, about Nelsons having a 'blind spot' in Bruckner, you might want to read your own account of his reading of the Third earlier this year. Second, any proper review should acknowledge the massiveness of the challenge of playing the Eighth. It's partly a feat of concentration, and partly a matter of maintaining pulse (which I'll admit wasn't always there in this performance) and a sense of direction. It's an awfully hard thing to get everything right, even on a good day. Third, my hunch is that you switched off after the second movement: Nelsons' reading of the slow movement was absolutely glorious, with the coda a particular triumph.

I must endorse the comments made by Emmanuel. I feel you are off the mark about the Adagio in particular, and have been over critical of the performance. I accept your point that there were some "large scale structure" issues. Regards, Derek

I’ve tried posting a comment in reply to this review before, but the website hasn’t let me do so – perhaps because I disagree with so much. I’m not going to comment on interpretative issues. They are too subjective and you are entitled to your view even if I disagree. But your comments on the playing of the orchestra are to my mind frankly bizarre. An inaudible timpani? Perfectly audible to me in row H, and indeed my wife – unprompted – afterwards commented favourably on his playing. Subtle and nuanced, or do you only want timpanists to hit as loudly as they can? Violin tone thin, brass sharp and ugly? Just no no no… absolute nonsense, especially as the post above mentions, in a work requiring huge stamina from all concerned. One of the most ridiculous reviews I have ever read and not one that gives The Arts Desk any credibility as a source of serious arts journalism.

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