“I am dynamite” is what the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once memorably said about himself. Not many composers have sticks of gelignite sticking out of their musical structures: Beethoven is one of them. The explosive potential did not start with the Eroica Symphony; it was there to behold in its immediate two predecessors. The Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by the man with whom this orchestra has recorded its most recent cycle of the nine symphonies, Andris Nelsons, certainly had its ammunition boxes on full display in this first instalment of the entire canon at the Elbphilharmonie.

Andris Nelsons and the Wiener Philharmoniker © Daniel Dittus
Andris Nelsons and the Wiener Philharmoniker
© Daniel Dittus

The dynamite was already there in the dissonance of the First Symphony’s opening woodwind chord, breaking apart all classical expectations; it was there in the almost impossibly fast and amphetamine-fuelled Menuetto of that C major symphony, a St Vitus’ dance in all but name; it was there in the bite and burst of the string lines as the Second Symphony’s concluding Allegro molto got underway, like an angry terrier snapping at one’s heels. It was there, above all, in the many sforzandos emanating from the composer’s scatter-gun, delivered with relish and conviction by the muscular and lithe strings.

Nelsons had a very coherent view of this opening trio of symphonies, imbuing all three with life-affirming vitality. This was reflected in his use of the same complement of string players, grounded on six double basses, with scarcely a concession to period practice apart from the use of hard-sticked timpani. But in his exploration of the second movement of the Eroica, mining those deep quarries of C minor which were to prove such a potent model for later composers such as Mahler, Nelsons went much further, revealing a shadowy and troubled world well beyond the ambit of previous symphonic thought. This was a proper funeral march, stretching for well over seventeen minutes, the black garlands and ribbons fluttering in winds of aching desolation, with a central climax in which the anguished first violins in their highest register were answered by explosive cellos and double basses.

Andris Nelsons and the Wiener Philharmoniker © Daniel Dittus
Andris Nelsons and the Wiener Philharmoniker
© Daniel Dittus

Throughout Nelsons was rewarded with a remarkably flexible and sensitive response from the Philharmoniker. The smiles on the faces of his players said it all, as they turned to each other at critical junctures with an expression of “Yes, that’s the way it has to go!” satisfaction. It was visible too in the dazzlingly precise and unanimous bowing, with the back desks giving as much commitment as their front-desk colleagues. This Rolls-Royce of an orchestra affords itself the luxury of different woodwind and timpani principals for a concert of this dimension, yet the collective breathing in and out remains astonishingly identical. The Viennese woodwind do not chatter idly, as in the Andante of the First Symphony, they converse eloquently with one another; the bassoon in the Larghetto of the Second creates the sensation of biting into a fat, juicy plum; the principal oboe delivers a melting solo in the Eroica’s funeral march, offset by the 80 per cent cocoa bean of the dark clarinets; the three horns in the Trio section of the Scherzo have all the noblesse of Royal Huntsmen riding out for the day. Wien, du bist so schön! 

Over all these orchestral riches presides the burly figure of Nelsons, an ever-watchful presence, outstretched palms, arms aloft, the occasional clenched fist, sometimes leaning forward almost beseechingly, waving his baton like a magician’s wand, and then suddenly sky-bombing into individual sections to create extra turbulence. It was an evening when you are much less aware of an interventionist conductor and more conscious of the music itself. Just as it should be.

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