Quiz question: what did Britten, Bartók, Walton, Berg, Barber, Schoenberg, Prokofiev and Stravinsky all do in the 1930s? Answer: write a great violin concerto. That’s more in a decade than in the entire 19th century. Stravinsky’s references Baroque models, with four movements each about five minutes long, and the soloist playing virtually throughout. Hindemith told Stravinsky it helped not being a violinist – no risk of conventional ideas for familiar finger movements. So some of the writing is awkward and difficult to memorise – which could be why of those 1930s pieces all but the Schoenberg are heard more frequently.

Baiba Skride, Andris Nelsons and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

Baiba Skride mentioned this in her pre-concert interview, adding she was not often asked to play it (“once every year or two years”). It’s a favourite of hers, played here with evident enthusiasm, and a chamber music feel to the interchanges with the wind and brass. There was a toe-tapping pulse for the opening Toccata, despite Andris Nelsons’ eyes being glued to the score. (The stiff pages of his pocket edition kept trying to close; no well-thumbed conductor’s score in the Philharmonic’s library?) He still led much more than a run-through, providing alert support for his Latvian compatriot. She was most eloquent in the two inner movements, especially the slower “Aria II” where she relished the cool melodic beauty of Stravinsky’s lovely invention. The finale was an exhilarating dash to the line, the Berlin Philharmonic giving no hint that this was new territory for many of them.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

After Stravinsky’s neoclassicism with its motor rhythms there followed the opposite. Silence and stillness made audible by the introduction – marked “like a sound of nature” – of Mahler’s First Symphony. This took time to catch fire, with some reticence in several of the early woodwind and trumpet solos. The Wayfaring Lad song theme began as trudge but picked up pace with later iterations, and the movement ended with the Berliners back to their incomparable best. All went well thereafter, with Nelsons providing some personal touches, especially the emphatic opening to the second movement, a Lederhosen-clad Ländler stamp, and in the funeral march a gently singing middle section (another song from the Wayfaring Lad cycle). Mahler indicates for the finale’s coda that the horns should stand up, an instruction usually ignored. But the seven Berlin horns were on their feet right on cue. What began in reticence ended with a flamboyant bit of theatre.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall video stream