Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia / Nelsons @ Royal Festival Hall, London

22 February 2015

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

In addition to conducting a series of performances of Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera House, this month also sees Andris Nelsons lead five concerts with the CBSO and two with the Philharmonia. This second outing with the Philharmonia featured two Austrian composers from opposite ends of the 20th century, H K Gruber and Gustav Mahler.

Gruber’s Aerial, first heard at the 1999 BBC Proms, is a trumpet concerto written for Håkan Hardenberger, who was the instrumentalist in this performance. The concerto requires the soloist to switch between a standard trumpet in C, a cow horn trumpet and a piccolo trumpet. The use of an assortment of mutes provides additional variety of colour and style. The sound of the trumpet in the slower first half often has a bluesy feel, reflecting Gruber’s interest in jazz, while both alto and tenor saxophones are prominent in the faster second half. A large percussion section, used sparingly, brings additional colour and energy to the score. Hardenberger’s performance was as authoritative as might be expected, blending seamlessly with the rich and evocative orchestral accompaniment under Nelsons.

The skills of the Philharmonia’s principal trumpet, Alistair Mackie, were much in evidence during Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, his focused and intense playing underpinning the performance the first movement. Equally praiseworthy was the contribution of principal horn Katy Woolley in the third movement Scherzo, her perfectly rendered solos an object lesson in Mahlerian characterisation. Woodwinds were also on excellent throughout, and the playing of guest harpist Manon Morris in the Adagietto was notably refined and eloquent.

I didn’t feel, however, that Nelsons’ direction of the symphony as a whole matched the impressive contributions of the various soloists. The first movement came across well, the mournful tread of the funeral march interposed with climaxes of searing power, but an air of inhibition prevented the stormy second movement from making an equivalent impact. The third and fifth movements made an impact in a generalised way but lacked in spontaneity and character, and the interpretation of the Adagietto was cool rather than luminous. There were also a number of times in the symphony when brass section, slightly larger than that specified by Mahler, overwhelmed the rest of the orchestra. The result was an interpretation that was never dull but failed to make a cumulative impact. The symphony’s joyous conclusion, however, was thrillingly realised.

Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.

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