Andris Nelsons conducts Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

25 Apr 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

Håkan Hardenberger

  • HK Gruber
    Aerial, Concerto for trumpet and orchestra (29 min.)

    Håkan Hardenberger Trumpet

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 5 (83 min.)

  • free

    Andris Nelsons and Håkan Hardenberger in conversation with Sarah Willis (21 min.)

HK Gruber writes about his trumpet concerto Aerial, premiered in 1999 in London: “The concerto offers two aerial views, firstly an imaginary landscape beneath the Northern Lights bearing an inscription from Emily Dickinson’s poem Wild Nights: ‘Done with the compass – Done with the chart!’ In part this refers to the pure invention that can be conjured up through the skills of a great trumpeter. ... The second and larger of the two aerial views, entitled Gone Dancing, has a view as if from another planet – our world is empty of human life, but a lone sign bears the words ‘Gone Dancing’.”

This subtle and virtuoso composition is performed in the Philharmonie with the soloist of the premiere, Håkan Hardenberger – veritably a “great trumpeter”.

Andris Nelsons – a welcome guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker since his highly acclaimed debut in 2010 – conducts Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in the second half of the concert. Mahler complained that the composition, first performed in 1904 in Cologne, was a “cursed work” that “no one understands”. Today, however, the Fifth Symphony is among the most frequently played works by Mahler.

HK Gruber’s Aerial and Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

Virtuosic discourse on virtuosity: HK Gruber’s trumpet concerto Aerial

They say there’s something in the air. It could be love, a fateful turning point, a portal. Or it could be music. When there’s music in the air, the object is always something that wafts: a sound-image, airy or ethereal – it’s sounding air, in any case, for which the word aerial is an apt description. Not surprisingly, a composer has given that name to one of his works. HK Gruber calls his trumpet concerto Aerial – a “piece of air” – and there’s any amount of air, phenomenological as well as material, flowing through it.

This lavishly scored composition is dedicated to Håkan Hardenberger, who gave the premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi at the 1999 Proms. Not only has Gruber augmented the Classical-Romantic wind complement with soprano, alto and tenor saxophones; the percussion section – including piano – also explores its full range of possibilities. But the key player is the soloist, who holds in his hands three different instruments in alternation. If you think of them as a sort of air-filled triptych, the middle panel is the classical C trumpet, and it is flanked by the piccolo trumpet we know from Baroque works and the so-called cowhorn, an instrument used since antiquity, barely 15 cm long and having a narrow range extended from B♭to F’’. The “problem” with this cowhorn is its intonation. Thrust into the midst an orchestra playing at modern concert pitch, the soloist – imagine a troll with trumpet – is tasked with holding his own in both timbre and intonation. The results are so-called “cast-off sounds” (HK Gruber) that recall the great jazz musician Miles Davis.

“Jazz, mon amour?” – by all means. But also “poésie, mon amour”. Aerial offers two views from aloft. What appears to the observer in the first part is like a bird’s-eye view of an imaginary landscape illuminated by the Northern Lights. It bears an inscription from Emily Dickinson’s poem Wild Nights: “Done with the compass / Done with the chart”. In the poem’s middle stanza, a lover imagines herself on the tempestuous sea but no longer needing a compass because love leads to a safe haven. Gruber’s composition acts as a counterpart to this poetic formulation, with the music itself deciding which course to take and which sounds will accompany it. Aerial is more than a piece about virtuosity – it is also about freedom.

The second movement is headed “Gone Dancing”. This time the point of departure is a distant planet from which our own, the earth, appears as a world without human life. Only a single sign can be distinguished, on which can be made out the words “Gone Dancing”. Here again, if you like, a poetic image is evoked: Stefan George’s verse “Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten” (I feel air from another planet), but from an altered perspective. Musically, the differing spheres (planets) are characterized by energetic contrasts between the two themes. Their conflict goes on for a quarter of an hour, but the last word is given to the soloist – Ariel, the aerial spirit.

“A yearning for what is beyond the things of this world”: Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

And Mahler? Was he an aerial spirit? In a certain sense, he surely was. But, at the same time, he was the creature that Rainer Maria Rilke versified when he strolled through the Jardin des Plantes in late summer 1902 and conceived The Panther. Rilke will not have had Mahler in mind in his poem, but he captured him almost perfectly. Is Mahler not like the panther that numbly strides about his (mental) cage, turning in the smallest of circles and yet taking in the entire world with his strong will? It hardly matters that the composer in this late summer of 1902 is newly married and has just written – though not yet completely orchestrated – his Fifth Symphony. This does not make his world a jot better.

Mahler’s music describes the course of the world seismographically. But the music rails against this course, obstructs it, imitates it in order to indict it. And wherever it breaks through the course of the world, this music raises an objection to it. It would rather self-destruct than obscure the breach between subject and object. It makes us hear what it is like to be unreconciled with the world although one loves it. It does so with abundance, with power, with rage. And with unearthly beauty.

The novel features of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – which opens (with the famous trumpet call) in C sharp minor and ends 70 minutes later in radiant D major – involve not only its diction but also its form. The first act of this symphonic drama in three “divisions” is itself divided into two movements, each playing for about a quarter of an hour. The first (Trauermarsch: In gemessenem Schritt Funeral March: At a measured pace) is a kind of exposition, while the other (Stürmisch bewegt: Mit grösster Vehemenz Stormily: With utmost vehemence) is, so to speak, its development. A bold, unprecedented experiment is made even more daring by the phenomenon of seeming to abrogate the usual thematic duality almost entirely. In this symphony it is not thematic blocks that dominate but rather the motifs. Motion prevails which no longer requires contrast because it is itself contrast, although without defined poles. “For all its dynamism and vivid detail,” wrote Adorno perceptively, “the movement has no history, no direction, and really no emphatic temporal dimension. The lack of historical progress inclines it towards reminiscence; its energy, blocked in its forward rush, seems to flow backwards.” The formulation “lack of historical progress” is interesting here. The movement culminates in a visionary chorale that anticipates the tonality of the finale.

Vision is one thing; the real world is another, and the step back into it happens more quickly than one might wish. The Scherzo (the second “division”) erupts like a whirling waltz magnified to symphonic dimensions. This movement doesn’t adhere to traditional homophonic malleability but rather to a strict contrapuntal structure. Although the scherzo section and first trio are firmly delineated, the two are so thoroughly intermeshed that the separation is obscured. The layers interpenetrate, climaxing in the coda where four themes race in parallel to the finish line.

Having reached it, we now encounter one of the most profound of all Mahler’s musical creations: the symphony’s third “division”. It begins with the F major Adagietto, at once a magically melancholy song of farewell and a subtle declaration of love to the nymph Alma Schindler. That is indicated by a passage in the middle of the movement bars 61-71 where the violins ascend to the heavens and Mahler quotes the “Glance” motif from Wagner’s Tristan. But this bright celestial sojourn is brief. The Adagietto is dominated by the same sighing 2nds that Mahler later made a melodic constant in the Adagio of the Ninth. In these moments, weighted down with wistfulness, paradise seems farther away than ever. The Finale nevertheless strives towards it. Its tone is one of high spirits, at times exuberance that – needless to add – never seems frivolous. Mahler’s music is broken, always and at every moment.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Richard Evidon

Andris Nelsons was born in 1978 into a family of musicians in Riga. His career began as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera as well as the winner of many competitions for his singing (including the Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music). After completing his conducting studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; besides attending masterclasses with Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula, Mariss Jansons is his most important mentor. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, and from 2006 to 2009 principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford. In 2008 he took on the same role with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Starting with the 2014/15 season, he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Wiener Staatsoper and the Berlin Staatsoper. He has returned to the Bayreuth Festival as conductor of Lohengrin, in a production directed by Hans Neuenfels, every year since its premiere in 2010. Andris Nelsons has already made appearances with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and the New York Philharmonic. He first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010; his most recent appearance was in October 2014 in a programme of works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Strauss.

Håkan Hardenberger was born in Malmö, Sweden. He began studying the trumpet at the age of eight with Bo Nilsson in Malmö and continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, with Pierre Thibaud and in Los Angeles with Thomas Stevens. As one of the greatest trumpet soloist today, Håkan Hardenberger performs with the world’s leading orchestras. Conductors he regularly collaborates with include Pierre Boulez, Alan Gilbert, Daniel Harding, Paavo Järvi, Ingo Metzmacher, Andris Nelsons and David Zinman. Hardenberger enjoys artistic partnerships with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, Swedish pianist Roland Pöntinen and the British organist Jonathan Scott. Composers who have written works for Håkan Hardenberger include Harrison Birtwistle, Brett Dean, Hans Werner Henze, Rolf Martinsson, Olga Neuwirth, Arvo Pärt, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Rolf Wallin as well as HK Gruber whose concerto Aerial has received more than 60 performances by Hardenberger. Conducting is becoming an integral part of Håkan Hardenberger’s music making. He has already lead performances with the Dresden Philharmonie, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, St Paul Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra Dublin, Real Filharmonía Galicia as well as orchestras in Tampere, Malmö and Västerås. Hardenberger is professor at the Malmö Conservatoire and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. These concerts are his first appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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