It only takes a few bars for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to demonstrate its class. Its rich string sound is only matched by its rich history, its brass has a mellow, never raucous, ring, the homogenous woodwind sound is warm and buttery. These qualities were present throughout this second evening in its Southbank Centre residency, but Gewandhauskapellmeister Andris Nelsons’ interpretations of Mahler’s First Symphony and Tchaikovsky operatic episodes often had a mannered quality which impeded them from quite hitting the listener between the ears – at least, until late in the day.

Andris Nelsons
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

The evening started with the UK première of Andris Dzenītis’ Māra, drawing on the ritual and mythology of the composer’s Latvian roots. It was described in the programme as “the materialisation of all spiritual power”: a big, bold statement, and met by a big, bold sound, although one that was overlong for its material and which drew on familiar new music tropes. Chirruping woodwinds posed the questions, responded by stinging string pizzicatos, while lacerating trumpets and the lustre of tuned percussion hinted at cosmic grandeur. Only the fine bass clarinet soliloquy at the end seemed to have something original to say.

Dressed in a black tulle gown, with her trademark black velvet choker, Kristine Opolais was the glamorous soloist in excerpts from The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin. If only there was more black velvet to her soprano. Instead, Opolais’ silvery timbre sounded pale, squeezed at the top. Her voice is a size too small for Lisa, even on the concert stage, although, dramatically, she was completely inside the role in her Act 1 arioso (not the suicidal Act 3 aria indicated in the programme – and no texts, tsk).

The smokiness to Opolais’ lower register in Tatyana’s Letter Scene was welcome and she acts convincingly, engaging the audience completely. You felt Tatyana’s whispered words of love, as she wonders whether Onegin is her guardian angel or some wily tempter, were directed straight at you. The Gewandhaus oboe and horn exchanges here were fabulous here, but the soggy violins’ introduction hardly set pulses racing in anticipation of a teenager about to pen her first love letter. Between the vocal numbers, Nelsons directed a vigorous Onegin Polonaise, albeit with affectations in the dainty middle section, but the pomp of the main theme was lustrous, befitting a St Petersburg ball.

Kristine Opolais
© Elena Nezenceva

Nelsons, conducting much of the evening with his left hand gripping the podium rail, also had a firm grip on Mahler 1 after the interval. It was richly detailed with scrupulous attention to dynamics, yet took a long time to catch fire. The tremulous first movement didn’t have an organic sense of flow: rather than an open-hearted stroll enjoying the countryside, this felt like a regimented trek, led by a tour guide directing the itinerary from a clipboard.

The emphatic, foot-stamping Ländler felt rustic enough, but the halting rubatos in the gentle Trio section were just a little too sly, a little too knowing, as if Mahler was tapping the side of his nose. The funeral march third movement was taken at an appropriately laboured, funereal pace, although the excellent double bass’ intonation never wavered in his Frère Jacques solo. A jigging bassoonist in the klezmer invasion hinted at an orchestra itching to break free, which it finally did as Nelsons swept attaca into the finale. This was a thunderous assault where micro-management was abandoned for something more, well, abandoned in spirit. The gleeful eye contact between the two timpanists was terrific… the Gewandhaus had now been let off the leash and were making the most of it. This is what we’d come for.