The fifth Prom of the 2013 season welcomed Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall, with the Arditti String Quartet as soloists. Nott and his orchestra became an award-winning partnership in 2010, winning the MIDEM Award for their recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Even though Nott, who is from Birmingham, became Principal Conductor in 2002, it is rare that he brings his orchestra to perform in the UK.

Helmut Lachenmann © Astrid Karger, Saarbrücken
Helmut Lachenmann
© Astrid Karger, Saarbrücken

I knew how the opening piece, Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutchlandlied, was going to turn out as soon as first violin Irvine Arditti strummed his first chord. It was sharp, energised, and played with conviction, and in the next few moments I began to hear a piece built upon a pointillist technique. Short staccato notes were thrown around the orchestra like a glass ping-pong ball, fast but with incredible delicacy. My eyes couldn’t keep up with where all the different sounds were coming from.

As the piece developed, and we heard the incredibly diverse sound palette of the great Lachenmann, I witnessed what seemed to be musicians torturing their instruments, creating bizarre, ear-ringing sounds which did nothing but shock me, and yet were deeply impressive. Lachenmann’s music is a superb example of what much contemporary music is trying to achieve. One principal aim of many composers is to create strange, evocative “sound worlds” that challenge audiences’ expectations: more traditional classic music does this too, but contemporary music goes about it in a more direct and obvious way.

Some of these sounds included using cello bows against the vibraphone and cymbals; using a bow’s end screw to pluck the string instruments; bowing on the strings right up by the scroll, producing a very hollow, wind-like sound; and applying high pressure with the bow on the strings – making a very aggressive screech, which all classically trained string players spend years trying to avoid. One sound that took me an awfully long time to locate was produced by banging the wood of the bow against the scroll of a single violin. All these techniques, although not technically demanding to achieve, must have been terribly difficult to place, making life particularly hard for leader Bart Vandenbogaerde and the other principles.

With a piece as intellectually demanding as the Tanzsuite, consisting of such strong tension, I found myself needing to relax, needing a break in the intensity, but none was offered for the whole, 36-minute duration. Throughout, the concentration within the room, both in the orchestra and in the audience, was bizarre.

After the interval, the orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was exceptional. Never have I been so impressed with the ease at which the players created atmosphere in an instant. The opening of the symphony begins with a funeral march played on solo trumpet, and this was superbly presented by Markus Mester. The strong, virtuosic power behind the Bamberg Symphony hit me hard when they entered a few bars later, and they maintained this strength for all of the first two movements. The admirable principal horn player Christoph Ess stood for the entirety of the Scherzo; his opening solo was warm, quiet and controlled, and his playing became more impressive throughout. The Adagietto in the fourth movement was stunning. It was peaceful and relaxing, the kind of release that I had been looking for earlier in the concert – and the ensuing finale was a joyous conclusion.

The horn, clarinet and oboe players regularly lifted their instruments above their stands, reminding me of court music and fanfares, and typifying this energetic orchestral performance. Particular energy came from the bassoons in both the Mahler and the Lachenmann; they addressed a short staccato semiquaver with the same amount of care as a beautifully sweeping melody, both in their sound production and in the way they moved.

Something I admire in Mahler’s compositions is that there is so much going on at the same time: you can almost choose which melody you want to listen to. Although this blending together of melodies can sometimes be very impressive, in this performance – with all the orchestral sections playing out so much – it was a little too much; the countermelodies jeopardised the strength of the themes.

Nott presented the symphony elegantly, though without making much of a personal statement about the piece. He rarely used rubato, even in the opening movement, with the music calling out for it, and the rest of the symphony very much continued on the same, straight path. However, it did have swagger – and swagger is definitely a word I would use to describe the Tanzsuite as well. During the concert, I felt that these two pieces were almost as contrasting as any two pieces could be, but after reflection I think they complemented each other well. At the very least, they showed us the all-round talent of this excellent orchestra and their marvellous conductor.

****1