On first acquaintance you could be forgiven for thinking that Andris Nelsons strikes a rather ungainly figure on the rostrum, but after a short while you are drawn into his extravagant gestures that seem to envelop and draw the whole orchestra onto the path he wants them to travel. Overall his strength of vision and passionate approach brought out performances, from this smoothest of orchestras that were both controlled and spontaneous.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

What a joy to hear a performance of the Trumpet Concerto in C, “Nobody knows de trouble I see”, or indeed any work by the much underrated and underplayed German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann. A short 15-minute work, it nevertheless packs in a huge gamut of riches and technical demands for the soloist, in this case the intrepid and extrovert Håkan Hardenberger. The Concerto is a pleasing mix of Schoenbergian 12-tone writing and, in the colourful middle section, jazz, with some exotic instruments from that world such as a drum kit, four saxophones and an electric guitar added to the orchestral line-up. The soloist was stretched to the limit interpretatively and technically, achieving a wide range in every aspect of his playing, communicating effectively the fractured, yet entertaining language of the piece.

And so to Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most ambitious of his works in this form. In this performance, which was conservative in its choice of tempi, the majesty of its quest for resolution and enlightenment was realised confidently. Nelsons managed to steer a steady course between the subjective emotions and the objective structural concerns of the movements.

He was particularly effective in the first movement, which must rank very highly in the pantheon of great first movements, where the inevitability of the progression towards the final apocalyptic climax was breathtaking. The orchestral sound here and throughout the performance, had just the right mix of weight, lushness and transparency. Only occasionally was the balance slightly awry, not allowing some of the telling woodwind solos their room to breathe. The tempo of the Scherzo was spot on, enabling the main sections to have a unique rhythmic heft. The trios weren’t allowed to linger, with a constant sense of the inevitable return of the Scherzo.

It was in the Adagio that Nelsons’ passionate approach to the writing bore most fruit. The three glorious main themes of the movement were beautifully presented, with the strings supported by a lustrous carpet of brass. As these themes are developed over the rest of the movement and Bruckner is at his most remarkable when he is developing his material, the impetus created was spectacular, culminating in the glorious E flat major climax.

The finale set off at a fastish pace, with the fanfares of the main theme sounding as they should – heroic, but still on the edge of the abyss. As in many Bruckner finales, the constraints of sonata form can seem to hold the composer back from achieving the character of the music he wants to create. To an almost irrelevant degree this is the case in the Eighth Symphony and finding a way through this poses particular interpretative problems for all conductors. Nelsons again navigated with an immediacy that was impressive, but his grading of the climaxes was not as sure-footed as in the Adagio. The development of the main material is so overwhelming here, with climax after climax trying to find a way out of the labyrinth, that only in the coda is the destination point of C major reached and the final joyous conflagration is allowed to wash away all the doubts and fears. Achieving the full impact of these final bars has proved to be a massive challenge to the most experienced conductors and to his credit, Nelsons was nearly there.