Sadly I realised too late on Sunday that there was a pre-concert talk with trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger on, as deeper insight might have improved my experience of HK Gruber’s Aerial, a concerto for trumpet and orchestra. The premise was exciting: an exploration of the capabilities of trumpet and trumpeter, set against a backdrop of further exploration. The title of the first movement is taken from Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights - Wild nights!, while the composer suggests that the second movement be considered an aerial view of an empty planet, with just the sign “Gone Dancing” (also the movement’s title) left behind. The first movement could also be considered an aerial view of “imaginary landscape beneath the Northern Lights”.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

 There was certainly an ethereal start suitably invocative of nature’s great light show from the orchestra, and Hardenberger’s entrance, singing through and playing the trumpet simultaneously, produced some lovely gravelly tones and flute-like harmonics. However, the compositional device outstayed its welcome, and there was an overall lack of travel in the opening section. The movement jumped around a number of influences; I heard Gershwin, Pärt, Holst, Björk and of course, Mahler (who eventually won out). The inclusion of the cow-horn felt like a risk, and perhaps not a necessary one. Of course the point was to show the skill of the performer – Hardenberger is also the dedicatee of the work – but it felt at times like this was the raison d’être for the piece, rather than a means to a greater end.

The second movement leapt into being, dancing energetically, though after a while Andris Nelsons needed more composure. His nervous energy began to be reflected in a nervous orchestra, which lost focus. When the orchestra felt freer to be more expressive, the sound was a delight. Hardenberger’s performance was also admirable, though he appeared to tire towards the end (unsurprising given the vast technical demands of the piece). There was also a weird and frankly unnecessary coda, ending with Hardenberger walking to the piano and playing into it. Overall the piece felt too tricksy, and though the orchestra and Hardenberger made a valiant attempt, they couldn’t quite elevate this showmanship piece to greater heights.

Great heights (and great depths) were much on display in Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor, though Nelsons’ lapses of composure showed here too. There was dazzling brilliance from the brass in the opening (Alistair Mackie deserves special praise for his performance throughout) contrasted with a lovely understatedness from the strings, who resisted the temptation to over emote in quieter moments throughout the performance. This didn’t always translate to the bolder moments; later in the first movement Nelsons’ then shaky grip on the music led to histrionic strings. The woodwinds were excellent in the second movement, particularly the clarinets, providing a relief from the tension and anger in the movement’s opening before returning to turmoil, one musical thought being immediately overwhelmed by another, the orchestra creating a sense of musical stream of consciousness.

The Scherzo started badly, with woodwinds having to compensate for some very messy horn playing. The horn section was a weak link for the rest of the symphony; there was little sense of line in any of their prominent moments, all blasted out marcato. The Scherzo also frequently threatened to get away from Nelsons; some moments would be perfectly controlled, others messy and indistinct. There was, however, lovely interplay between the violins and cellos, as well as beautiful solo turns from the string section leaders and the movement picked up momentum towards the end, finishing with great drive and vigour.

There was beautiful warmth to the opening of the Adagietto, thanks again to the sensitivity of the strings, particularly the violins. This carried through the movement, with the lower strings gently expanding to provide more depth, and hints of darkness which seemed appropriate for Mahler; even in moments of pure love, the potential for pain is not forgotten. I was very thankful for Nelsons not allowing a coughing break between the Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale, keeping us in the moment. Mahler’s contrapuntal writing was most in evidence in the final movement, although the strings lacked tautness in places, particularly when their running passages were playing an accompanying role. There were a number of climactic moments whose build up was full of energy, but then this was lost in a flabby retreat. However, the finale climax was triumphant, full of power and feeling, carrying all before it. If the whole performance had been as assured, the evening would have been a huge success.

***11