Nestled in the north of Bavaria lies the small medieval town of Bamberg. Despite its small population of just 70,000 people, the town boasts not only a wonderful concert hall, but one of the best orchestras in Germany. The Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie has an enviable reputation both in Europe and throughout the world, and has been gaining even more renown since the appointment of Jonathan Nott as principal conductor in 2000.

Herbert Blomstedt © Gert Mothes
Herbert Blomstedt
© Gert Mothes

Tonight's programme started with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, performed by the young Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan. Although the 26-year-old virtuoso is more often associated with Russian and Scandinavian repertoire, to which his excellent recordings of the concertos by Shostakovich, Sibelius and Khachaturian are testament, his performance of the famous Mendelssohn concerto was both beautiful and illuminating. From the opening, Khachatryan's performance was tender and less strident than any other performance of this piece I've heard, and it was wonderful to hear this new light shed on such a familiar work. In the second movement he and conductor Herbert Blomstedt spun out endlessly long phrases, enhancing the lyrical "Song without words" style of the Andante. Khachatryan's tone is always singing and beautiful, never feeling pushed or forced, although his performance of this second movement was not as rich as that of the first in terms of variety and colour. Sadly things came a little undone in the finale, with some significant ensemble issues between soloist and orchestra, but these were eventually resolved and made room for the sprightly playfulness to shine through. The audience were rightfully appreciative of this thoughtful and varied performance, and were treated to the first movement of Ysaÿe's Sonata no. 2 for solo violin as an encore, which was played with a sense of power and drama and no signs of the empty virtuosity that some performances of these sonatas can show.

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 was to be his last, and only the first three movements survive intact. Sadly the substantial fragments of the finale, which survived at the time of his death, have been almost completely lost, hindering attempts at completion (though not completely, as a recent concert in Berlin proved). However, the three finished movements are themselves a vast cathedral of a work, with the large orchestra taking the audience on a 60-minute whirlwind tour of orchestral colour and virtuosity. Bruckner's experience as an organist shows: with its interesting colours and powerful chords, it's as if he has literally pulled out all the stops. The Bamberger Symphoniker are more than a match for this orchestral tour de force, playing with an energy and vigour few orchestras can match.

After a powerful yet mysterious opening Blomstedt, a seasoned Bruckner conductor, steered the orchestra through the first movement with a real sense of drama and pacing. From the first note to the last there was a sense of the overall architecture of the work as an organic whole, and not the series of bombastic climaxes it can so easily become. This is emotional music, dedicated "dem lieben Gott" ("to the beloved God") and requires every player’s engagement with the music, from the virtuosic solo wind parts to the back-desk second violinists.

The second movement, a demonic scherzo, was very switched-on, with powerful string playing and virtuosic wind playing which I don’t think many orchestras anywhere in the world can match. Ulrich Biersack (flute) and Barbara Bode (oboe) were particularly noteworthy, not only for their incredible solo playing, but also for the way they worked together in the wind section, making every note count and bringing off a truly special performance.

The final Adagio was both touching and beautiful, and Blomstedt successfully brought it off with deep-seated emotion, though never straying into sentimentality. Christoph Eß performed the demanding first horn part with an unerring emotional commitment and technical brilliance. However, the horn section as a whole suffered occasionally from poor intonation, which was unfortunate in a work that should be a showcase for them.

Overall this was an excellent performance, well played and well directed throughout by this superb orchestra, in their beautiful concert hall. There were minor slips in the string and brass sections, but the woodwind playing was some of the best I've ever heard from any orchestra, and would be worth a trip to Bamberg to hear.