sat 20/07/2024

Hardenberger, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH review - new songs for an old glory | reviews, news & interviews

Hardenberger, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH review - new songs for an old glory

Hardenberger, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH review - new songs for an old glory

The Saxon legends shine as glorious trumpets sound

Soul and sheen: Håkan Hardenberger and Andris NelsonsAll images: Mark Allan

During his quarter-century in charge of the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig, the late Kurt Masur nobly held out a musical hand of friendship and collaboration from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

So how heartening to hear that the Southbank Centre has inaugurated a five-year partnership with the venerable Saxons – just when, as Bob Geldof, Simon Rattle, Ed Sheeran, John Eliot Gardiner and other celebs have warned in their recent open letter, the “serious madness” of Brexit threatens to shut British music into an East German isolation of its own.

For all his versatility as a conductor, Masur’s tenure confirmed the Gewandhaus’s reputation as a sort of gorgeous time-capsule, a plush and refined vehicle that might whisk you back to a fabled golden age of German orchestral sound. This, after all, is the 275-year-old city band that Mendelssohn, Nikisch, Furtwängler and Walter all led, and that premiered works by Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms. 

Their first autumn outing (of two) at the Royal Festival Hall, however, never overplayed tradition-for-tradition’s-sake. The Latvian maestro Andris Nelsons, who has added the time-honoured post of Gewandhaus Kapellmeister to his job directing the Boston Symphony Orchestra, coupled Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with a fascinating opener. This was the 1954 trumpet concerto by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, entitled “Nobody knows de trouble I see” and inspired by the African-American spiritual of that name.Hardenberger, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH We had to wait a while until the anguished main theme broke through on soloist Håkan Hardenberger’s wonderfully eloquent trumpet – but it was worth it. For me, the jazz and (less marked) gospel flavours of Zimmerman’s piece threw an unexpected bridge between the concerto and Mahler’s symphony, with its delirious medley of marches, waltzes and folk-tunes bubbling away in the sonic pot. In spite of his post-war avant-garde schooling and affiliations, Zimmermann manifestly embraced the African-American strands that knot in this work with a full heart and open mind. Many so-called jazz-inflected European works of the mid-20th century nod only curtly across the Atlantic – a few blue notes, some brief syncopations – but Zimmermann throws his musical door wide open. 

Hardenberger began with a slow, muted bluesy growl. As the texture thickened and the pace quickened, big-band stylings joined a densely eclectic orchestral framework that already put Baroque and Serialist elements in play. Zimmermann immerses the “spiritual” components of the piece into a rich modernist stock rather than import them as faithful citations – say, as Tippett does in the choruses of A Child of Our Time – but neither does he simply pay trumpet lip-service to his sources. With the saxophone quartet, guitar and Hammond organ on top, walking bass lines saluted Ellington or Basie. Meanwhile, the trumpet’s moody journey at times invoked the contemporary be-bop mastery of Parker and Gillespie. Harlem came to Darmstadt, and the results – with Hardenberger’s lonesome-sounding trumpet their soulful and yearning advocate – convinced. Did I hear a mambo begin to form in the depths of the rhythm section? Would Boulez have approved? And, I wondered, did Miles Davis know about this work?

Zimmermann certainly doesn’t outstay his welcome; this truncated first half lasted no more than a quarter of an hour. After the interval, Nelsons (pictured above and below by Mark Allan) compensated with a generous, exhilarating Mahler Five that showcased the sumptuous glow and sheen of the Leipzig sound. At the same time, the Gewandhaus avoided any plumply-upholstered heaviness. They gave us litheness and agility as well as lustre and heft. The opening theme of the first-movement funeral march continued the brassy glories of the evening, courtesy of the warm-toned principal trumpet, Jonathan Müller. The winds commanded a proper measure of village-band tipsiness, as revellers lurch into the funeral, and the massed horns throughout shone with a ravishing, thoroughbred radiance. Hardenberger, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH For all its familiarity, the Fifth can feel like a long haul – especially as the enormous scherzo unveils one aural twist and turn after another. Nelsons sustained a sense of dramatic momentum, of surprise and variety of tone. The antiphonal strings highlighted moments of contest and tension while the solo flourishes for brass and woods called out clearly from behind the luscious and velvety foreground. Absolute assurance marked Nelsons’ steering of even the most richly layered passages. But then he had a galaxy of individual stars to guide him; none brighter than the terrific principal horn, Ralf Götz, awesomely powerful but nimble or even skittish when the occasion demanded. 

Thanks to the blazing horn and trumpet colours of the Gewandhaus, this looked set fair to be a night of brassy triumph. The Adagietto somewhat restored the balance for the strings, gloriously deep and rich but also refined and free of schmaltz. Nelsons did not hang about; his Adagietto came home in nine minutes, compared to the languorous dawdling of 12 or 13 heard in some older recordings of the Fifth. In the finale, the whole band managed to sound mischievous as well as delirious; bucolic and playful more than ecstatic. Leipzig’s, and Nelsons’, Mahler never quite loses a sense of proportion. If the closing passages roared and soared, they did so in the best of taste; if this was not quite transformative, revelatory Mahler, it showed how a great and secure orchestral tradition can absorb this once-outrageous music with supreme self-confidence. Congratulations to the Southbank on their new Leipzig liaison. And let’s pray that no political madness frays this bond.

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters