I can’t confess to much knowledge about Viennese funerals at the turn of the 20th century, but if the “Trauermarsch” first movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 is in any way representative, they must have been dramatic events indeed. From the opening trumpet call (the city crier summoning us to attention, perhaps), wave upon wave of orchestral sound cascades over us, while descending scales reach down into the depths of our consciousness. But there are also moments of reflection (the second theme is a lovely string melody to calm our souls, although never too long, before the threat returns) and of brightness (woodwind and solo violin soar airily above the background march rhythm).

Andris Nelsons conducts the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester © Southbank Centre | Mark Allan
Andris Nelsons conducts the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Two things marked out the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s performance. The first was their physicality: string players threw themselves into music, their heads describing choreographic circles in time with the ebb and flow of each phrase. Where chamber players might synchronise themselves by listening to each other’s breaths, these musicians transformed themselves into a single unit by dint of watching each other’s motion; the result was an audible heightening of the level of passion as phrases swelled or relaxed.

The second was the pure depth of timbre from so many of the sections of the orchestra. String sound was rich and fulfilling. Rapid double bass runs were heavily accented and propulsive. The assembly of trumpets, trombones and tuba produced magnificent resonance, full and opulent without braying, while the horns gave their characteristic evocation of bygone days of hunting. Woodwind solos were laden with colourful harmonics. The big rolls from timpani and bass drum, of which Mahler makes plenty of use, provided thrill in themselves as well as solid underpinning for the rest of the orchestra.

Throughout, Andris Nelsons was the master craftsman, giving directions that were always crisp but varied in breadth from fine tuning up to strokes so broad as to be violent. That’s not to say that this was a perfect performance: while the playing within each desk was synchronised to a T, there were occasional mistimed entries. The third movement scherzo opened brightly but seemed to become somewhat becalmed in the middle, to be redeemed by a sublime Adagietto.

Håkan Hardenberger, Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhaus © Southbank Centre | Mark Allan
Håkan Hardenberger, Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhaus
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

As I’ve often said, my preference is to hear a 70 minute Mahler symphony on its own. But if one really must precede it by a 15 minute concerto and a 20 minute interval, it’s difficult to beat spending those 15 minutes listening to the trumpet playing of Håkan Hardenberger, which makes a very good choice of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1954 trumpet concerto Nobody knows de trouble I see, in which the soloist is playing almost non-stop. Hardenberger gave us a masterclass in trumpet colour, from delicate muted melodies, redolent of 1950s cool jazz, to broad and brassy full throated fanfare, to flutter-tongued subtlety to playing big-band-style fills when the orchestra comes to the fore. Hardenberger thrilled most with his ability to accelerate a run into a fully open long-held note at exactly the point where the orchestra joins in. I’m not completely convinced by Zimmerman’s work – it seems to me to be trying slightly too hard to be both jazz-infused and classical without comprehensively nailing either genre – but I could have gone on listening for hours to Hardenberger’s endless variety of perfectly turned phrases. I suspect that I wasn’t the only audience member to harbour a secret hope that he might return for the opening phrase of the Mahler (to be dashed, unsurprisingly).

Nelsons has suffered from back pain in the past and I assume that circumventing this lies behind an idiosyncratic conducting style, with his left hand often grasping the podium rail behind him while his right hand does all the work. This concert is one of a series marking the start of Nelsons’ tenure as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester (the youngest since Mendelssohn): as his relationship with the orchestra deepens in the coming years, an already impressive performance is likely turn into something truly sensational.

This concert is also one of a pair marking the start of a partnership between the Gewandhausorchester and the Southbank Centre, which will see frequent visits from the Leipzigers to London. Now that’s something to relish.

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