In your average concert-going year, Mahler symphonies are ubiquitous. But 2020 has been no ordinary year. Social distancing has meant the only live Mahler I’ve seen streamed post-lockdown has been in chamber versions: the Berlin Philharmonic in Erwin Stein’s reduction of the Fourth Symphony; and Das Lied von der Erde from the Royal Opera House in Arnold Schoenberg’s calorie-controlled version, completed by Rainer Riehn. A reduction of the Sixth does exist – by Klaus Simon, premiered only last year – but when it comes to the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons playing at the Salzburg Festival, no compromises are required.

The Vienna Philharmonic in the Großes Festspielhaus
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

Thanks to regular testing of the orchestra, part of the festival’s “red group” of performers, there are no requirements to socially distance on the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus, which allowed the 108 members of the orchestra to gather cheek by jowl for Mahler’s epic Sixth. Apart from one cellist in a facemask and a lack of handshakes – not even a friendly elbow bump between Nelsons and concertmaster Volkhard Steude – you wouldn’t know there was a pandemic going on. Even with the audience restricted to 1000, it ensured a pretty hefty ovation at the close. 

It was an ovation that was well deserved too, for this was a glowing account of the Sixth, one that revelled in the sheer massiveness of the score rather than its fierce brutality. There was a touch of defiance to the opening Allegro energico march, even though Nelsons didn’t drive it too hard, preferring to focus on the lyrical side, milking phrases fully.  The pastoral interlude, with cowbells so far off-stage they could well have been outside, was lovingly caressed, the quartet of flutes especially winsome.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

There have been angrier Scherzos, but there was a firm brass bite at the outset, with a Fafner-like growl from the tuba. In the Trio, there was delicacy and a Viennese lilt, followed by spectral col legnos. The Andante, Mahler’s musical love letter to his wife Alma, was here spun out to almost Karajan-esque length by Nelsons, the strings sighing and employing a tasteful touch of portamento. Ecstatic heights were reached though, thanks to the rampant Vienna horns, before cooling off with the balmiest of flute solos. 

The Latvian conductor kept a tighter rein on the long finale, holding the movement together well and charting its emotional climaxes. The hammer’s wooden thud wasn’t exactly eardrum splitting, but it did rattle the nearby camera to satisfying effect. The sombre mood of the low brass chorale was pierced by the final, violent outburst. 

Nelsons looked much more comfortable on the podium than of late – no gripping the handrail – and often beamed at the orchestra. I think I even detected a wink during the first movement. At one point in the finale, he held his right hand over his heart, rapt in the intensity of the music-making. I’m with him. The joy in this performance was hearing a big symphony orchestra in full cry once again. 

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.