The burden of the hype must be immense, yet the globe-trotting Andris Nelsons, Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Gewandhauskapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, never seems to put a foot wrong. Whether he plays the trumpet solo in a Galopp at the New Year’s concert with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducts Mahler in Berlin or a Wagner opera in Tanglewood, his energy is as admirable as his schedule is busy. If only I would have even a quarter of his frequent flyer points…

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Andris Nelsons
© Münchner Philharmoniker

The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra invited Nelsons to take charge of their latest concert stream, recorded a few weeks ago. In the outstanding acoustics of the Philharmonie im Gasteig, the occasion proved both orchestra and conductor as exceptional interpreters.

The concert saw musicians safely distanced but without masks or the ceremonies of a live performance: that awkward walking onto the stage, bows to a non-existent audience in the hall or even an introductory talk. It thus began immediately with the haunting introductory bars to Wagner's Tannhäuser overture, later heard in the opera as the Pilgrims’ Chorus. The theme was effortlessly passed from one instrumental group to the next, with exquisite balance between them, before majestically expanding to its mighty climax. The other significant theme of the overture, hinting (not very subtly) at the alluring sexual temptations of the Venusberg scene, was equally powerful, if in a completely different way. Nelsons’ conducting extended to the most minute details of phrasing and contrast and was enthusiastically applauded by the smiling musicians at the conclusion of the last, triumphant brassy chord of the work.

It took Brahms over 21 years to compose his First Symphony; however, after that, his Second followed within a year. Although often referred to as pastoral in character, there are weighty themes and pondering instrumental soliloquies aplenty in this symphony and this more serious side seemed to dominate Nelsons’ concept. Right from the ominous opening motif on cellos and double basses (as a sign of Brahms’ brilliance, obstinately recurring time and time again, even, half an hour later, at the opening of the final movement), a solemn, almost respectful atmosphere prevailed, resolving into the gentle parallel thirds of violas and cellos only in the second subject. In perfect symbiosis with his musicians, Nelsons’ leadership was clear, while never less than evocative. At the opening of the slow movement – always a challenge for conductor and cello section alike – the theme emerged with leisurely comfort, offering a velvety cushion of sound. Equally appealingly, before the second sounding of the theme in the Allegretto grazioso movement, where Brahms put a curious pause sign over one of the bar lines, Nelsons approached this with a delicate slowdown of the tempo, before seamlessly moving on. A master stroke of executing a minor musical gesture.

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Andris Nelsons conducts the Munich Philharmonic
© Münchner Philharmoniker

Every movement of his hands and eyes, head and upper torso seemed to express the intent that giving his best is not only a matter of professional integrity but also of personal pride. Seldom can a more sincere and convincing interpretation of a score be seen anywhere.

The Munich Philharmonic offered a full-bodied orchestral sound, never harsh and always focused, left to them by generations of the best German tradition. The string legato – such an important component in the texture of this symphony – was impeccable both in its collective technique and warm expression. For example, in the first movement’s closing theme, where violins imitate the theme on cellos and double basses with the bar lines appearing to be in the “wrong place” (such metrical shifts being a favourite tool of the composer’s genius), the utmost smoothness of the strings' playing made this section memorable. The woodwinds ubiquitously formed a cohesive sound, well demonstrated in the third movement’s theme, and the brass instruments were stentorian when needed, and blended, as if playing chamber music, with their colleagues otherwise.

In an era of technically correct but musically bland performances, the playing of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (only one of the Bavarian city’s four main orchestras) excelled in featuring a distinctive orchestral sound, recognisably different, for example, from that (no less excellent) other Philharmonic Orchestra, the one in Berlin.

This performance was reviewed from the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream