Lucerne Festival Orchestra & Andris Nelsons

Mahler's Fifth Symphony in two very different performances

Lucerne Festival Orchestra & Andris Nelsons
Lucerne Festival Orchestra (c) Lucerne Festival/Peter Fischli

This is the second season that the Lucerne Festival Orchestra has been without its founding father and guiding spirit, Claudio Abbado. And for a second year, Andris Nelsons has taken up the baton and, presumably, taken on the burden of expectation and the joy of working with such wonderful musicians. Last year he conducted part of a memorial concert including the finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony; this year Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was the centrepiece, following Bernard Haitink's performance of the Fourth Symphony in the festival's opening weekend. Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Haydn's Surprise Symphony partnered the symphony in Nelsons's two concerts.

But it was the Mahler Five on the first night that was the biggest surprise. It was bold, intense – one might even go as far as to say over-the-top, over-charged at moments, and quite unlike Abbado’s recordings filled with infinite subtleties. From the angel-of-death trumpet fanfare (and what incredible playing from trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich) and initial orchestral explosion, it felt like the demons of Pandora's box had been unleashed, with Nelsons encouraging the ensemble to give its considerable all time and time again.

Nelsons himself was like a man possessed: jumping, dancing, conjuring. His energy was almost terrifying in its rawness. At points it utterly suited the frenzied restlessness of the music, the anxiety of its soul; at other points I just wanted to turn down the volume. It was undeniably exciting but as if to prove the point that it was just all too much, the following evening's performance was totally different. Of course it always would be, yet I felt as if Nelsons had breathed out, and allowed the air, the light and the space to flow back in. Tempos were often slow, almost disconcertingly so, but never to the detriment of the music. Nelsons stood back more often physically and metaphorically, allowing the cellos to sing their lament movingly and the pizzicatos in the second trio to dance to their own beat.

From the light-hearted, lover’s musings of Rheinlegendchen to the devastating terror of Revelge, the selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn paved the way to the symphony. It made emotional sense, but these vignettes of love and the often mundane tragedy of life were, as a listener, hard to come into cold, even with such a distinguished singer as baritone Matthias Goerne. Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 made a great partner, with the orchestra and Nelsons delighting in its rustic downbeats and pastoral jollity. And in the second movement, with its famous surprise chord, the orchestra set up the joke with impeccable comic timing, to audible chuckles around the hall.

What to read next…

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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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