Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” form quite a formidable pairing in concert. Emotional music that packages beauty with nostalgia and sadness, yet expressed in such an individual manner that performing the symphonies back to back proves extra challenging. In Brussels, on his maiden tour as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons faced that challenge with brilliant and often spectacular readings, which were dazzling rather than moving.

Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

The concert opened with Chiasma from Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, commissioned by the Gewandhaus both as a celebration of their 275th anniversary and the appointment of Nelsons as Kapellmeister. Premiered in Leipzig in March, Chiasma is a ten-minute long sonic essay for large orchestra in which Larcher expresses his ambivalent vision of the world, “with its suicidal inclinations, its tenderness and beauty, its brutality and meaninglessness”. The piece gives a prominent place to an accordion and a whole phalanx of anomalous percussion instruments. The overlapping of simple motifs, as chromatids in cell biology to which the title refers, fuses into new, at times mysterious sounds that suddenly pick up towards a powerful orchestral climax before collapsing again. Meticulously conducted by Nelsons, Chiasma shimmered in all its elusive brilliance.

Judging from the performances of the main symphonies, however, it was clear that Nelsons and Leipzig need more time to adjust. Not all sections of the orchestra responded as well. The strings were magnificent throughout, warm and hyper-flexible, led here with irresistible enthusiasm by Sebastian Breuninger. Antiphonally placed with the cellos in the centre and the double basses back left, their sound was open and always substantial. Yet unlike with Riccardo Chailly, Nelsons’ predecessor in Leipzig, the woodwinds lacked a distinct character and were at times too forceful. And the brass wasn’t always that well integrated in the overall sound picture.

The sadness which subtly transpires from practically every bar of Mozart’s 40th morphed in Nelsons’ reading in a few overtly dramatic moments, mainly the development sections of the outer movements. True, the transparent sonority and excellent balance he obtained in the Allegro movements were attractive qualities, but somehow the overall impression was one of correctness rather than real investment. On the other hand, the Andante too forcibly played the dramatic card and often stalled by Nelsons’ extreme dynamics, emphatic accents and fragmented lines. The Allegro assai fared best of all, with feverishly energetic strings and an astonishingly violent fugato development. This was Mozart resolutely looking forward, but in doing so he lost his classical cool.

Nelsons pulled Tchaikovsky forward as well, at times rather forcefully, separating in the process the symphony from its theatrical roots. It's an approach which can be totally convincing but unfortunately in this performance not everything fell into place and the reasons were as much Nelsons' own musical choices as flaws in orchestral ensemble. At the end of the day this was a “Pathétique” which occasionally hit hard, but its drama was often more affected and as a whole the symphony failed to move. Part of the problem was Nelsons' unconditional sense of control which marred, for example, the Allegro con grazia waltz. In spite of the beautiful strings it felt like playing for effects. The Scherzo on the other hand was turned into an orchestral spectacular.

The first movement fitted somewhat better in this mould. The symphony started convincingly dark, the main themes lovingly shaped and Nelsons' clarity of articulation emphasised Tchaikovsky’s remarkable polyphonic writing. After quite a startling beginning of the development section with truly ferocious strings, raw brass and hell-raising timpani, Nelsons let the movement run out of steam and the climactic section with the descending trombones failed to impress. A very theatrical return of the second theme couldn’t really retrieve the disappointment. The Adagio lamentoso wasn't the most subtle, without true pianissimi and impaired by slips in the ensemble and rather weak bassoons.

The very long time that Nelsons waited after the final note waned to lower his arms had something artificial as well. True, after a great performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth you remain genuinely moved and convinced that everything has been said and nothing more needs to be added. But in this case, that was rather doubtful.