Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Andris Nelsons conducts Beethoven, Haydn, Gruber and Strauss

Beethoven, Haydn, Gruber, R. Strauss: Håken Hardenberger (trumpet), Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.12.10 (GDn)
Beethoven: Overture, Leonore No.3, Op.72a
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E flat, Hob. Vlle: 1
Gruber: Three Mob Pieces
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben Op.40
An impressive reputation precedes Andris Nelsons. His two seasons in Birmingham have met with near universal acclaim, and he now seems to be in demand in almost every corner of Europe. On the strength of this evening's performance, he is clearly a conductor who can find excitement in almost any repertoire. His ability to tap into the dramatic potential of the music is uncanny, and is no doubt a result of his many years experience in the opera pit.
Beethoven's Leonore 3 is the ideal vehicle for Nelsons operatic powers. He whips the piece up into a whirlwind, with glistening strings and strident wind solos. But the reading lacked clarity, partly perhaps due to the sheer size of the orchestra, but also because of almost continuous problems of coordination. Ensemble was an issue in all three works in this concert, but nowhere more so than here. Nelsons seemed unable to synchronise the winds and the strings. His cues to the soloists may not have been clear enough, or perhaps he was so concerned to get drama out of the strings that the wind entries passed him by.
Håken Hardenberger and Nelsons are polar opposites in many respects. Nelsons is a relative newcomer to the concert platform and often looks awkward and out of place in the limelight. Hardenberger, by contrast, relishes the attention and swaggers around like he owns the stage. Curiously, though, he is musically much more grounded than Nelsons. And details really matter. Every note he plays is cleanly articulated. In fact, he plays every note of the Haydn with a very hard tongue, which makes for maximum clarity but isn't really necessary. Nelsons remained on form with the Haydn, finding impressive drama in a score that is hardly known for excitement in its orchestral parts.
The Haydn concerto isn't much of a vehicle for Hardenberger's diverse skills, so he appended it with an encore that was about the same length; 'Three Mob Pieces' by H.K. Gruber. They are three jazzy character pieces, conservative in style and not particularly exiting on their own merits. Still, it was good to hear another side to Hardenberger's art, and the nonchalant, throwaway character of the pieces accorded well with his stage presence.
Despite his tender age, Nelsons must have gotten through a large chunk of the standard orchestral repertoire with orchestras around Europe. Even so, he is clearly most at home with the late Romantic Germans, and the Heldenleben that concluded the concert showed just what he is capable of. As with the first half, drama outweighed detail, but in Strauss' tone poems that isn't necessarily a problem. The sheer breadth of the opulent opening section promised impressive things ahead. And while there were again some issues of ensemble, the orchestra generally rose to the challenges. The brass and percussion sections delivered everything Nelsons needed in terms of power and attack. The quieter music was less impressive, or rather less passionate. The lush string melodies didn't quite swell and swoon as they might, and there was certainly room for a bit more rubato. Mrs Strauss (ie the solo violin) was on feisty form, again not an overly passionate reading, and one that made more of the acerbic episodes than the tender ones.
Some excellent Strauss then, but in a programme that never quite found its focus. Accusations of poor ensemble must seem strange to anybody who has heard Nelsons perform with the CBSO, or indeed the recording of his Lohengrin at Bayreuth this year. And the orchestra has no track record of such problems with other conductors. Perhaps a lack of rehearsal time is to blame, or maybe orchestra and conductor need a little more time to get to know each other. He is clearly a distinctive voice on the today's orchestral scene, but a little more familiarity between himself and his players is obviously necessary if he is to produce great things.
Gavin Dixon

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