Bamberg Symphony – Back in Edinburgh

Written by: Colin Anderson

Having had success at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2003, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Jonathan Nott have been invited back – for five concerts. It was time to visit the orchestra at home…

A trip to Bamberg is to discover a historical city, one unchanged by time (and which escaped bombing during World War II). Positioned on the northern tip of Southern Germany, Bamberg is a relaxed, well-maintained location in which the citizens observe numerous courtesies of ‘rules’ and show respect for fellow citizens; after coming from London it was a refreshing change. Annoying pop songs ‘entertaining’ customers do not plague shops, and there was but one example of a blaring car stereo.

This was a trip made with friend and Classical Source colleague Douglas Cooksey. Not the best of starts – the Air Berlin flight was delayed by well over an hour (as it was on returning). Thus, what was already an evening flight meant that we arrived on Saturday morning rather than Friday night. Fortunately the man representing Hertz remained at his post (“it’s my job”) to make sure we could drive from Nuremberg to Bamberg, and the excellent 4-star hotel was open all night. Believe me, even after not many hours sleep, the excellent breakfast was very welcome!

A flying visit, then, shared with a friend, during which a new friend was made: the conductor Sybille Werner. It was also a trip that took in Bayreuth, the fabled Green Hill approaching the equally legendary Festspielhaus that Richard Wagner built for the performance of his stage-works. Good to see and experience in situ this sacrosanct building – Pierre Boulez strolled by (he’s there to conduct “Parsifal”) – and to tour Wagner’s home (“Wahnfried”), now a museum – Wagner is buried in the back garden – and see Liszt’s adjacent house. Bayreuth – another welcoming town, another good lunch – is no longer imagined; next time the interior of the Festspielhaus must be explored – to hear a Wagner opera as he intended; his design of the orchestra pit is fascinating – the floor slopes downwards, the intention being that the heavy brass is not only the furthest away but is also the most deeply placed – and this notion at a time when brass instruments, with their narrower bores, were not as loud and as sonically imbalancing as today.

But Bamberg and its symphony orchestra, Bamberger Symphoniker, was the focus. Its conductor, Jonathan Nott, has been steadily rising the orchestra’s profile with interesting (“crazy”) programmes and the word has been helped spread by recording for Tudor. Following successful appearances at the 2003 Edinburgh International Festival, Bamberger Symphoniker is not only back in Edinburgh for this year’s Festival (having already made appearances in New York this year) but for no less than five concerts, the whole of the final week, in fact. Nice to be invited, even better to be invited back.

This visit to Bamberg caught the orchestra’s final concert of the season (Saturday, 23 July) – a coupling of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” and Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 (played in its three-movement, unfinished state). Both works feature in Edinburgh. It was good to hear Bamberger Symphoniker in its own home, ‘Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal’, a reminder of one of the orchestra’s distinguished principal conductors, others being Eugen Jochum and Horst Stein. Jonathan Nott has been in place since 2000, somewhat ‘forgotten’ to British music-lovers, although his work in Bamberg is there for all to hear because of Tudor’s recordings and through the orchestra’s international high-profile appearances.

One such is Edinburgh. The International Festival. Five concerts? More like seven. One of the five evenings is a concert performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (double the length of an ‘average’ concert), and the final performance is really two concerts in one – there is at least three hours of music: two Schubert symphonies, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with Jörg Widmann, the same Widmann’s Lied für Orchester, and then Bruckner 9. Some nice links; I recall Nott mentioning that Schubert No.1 has its Mozartian elements, and the Clarinet Concerto is a ‘late’ work (thus linking in time Mozart’s death, 1791, and Schubert’s birth, 1797; and both composers died young); Widmann can be heard as clarinettist and composer (and Lied has a Schubert connection), and Schubert’s B minor Symphony and Bruckner 9 are both unfinished, albeit very satisfyingly.

In the Bamberg Symphony’s own hall on 23 July, Maher’s “Kindertotenlieder” was sung by Iris Vermillion (replacing Marjana Lipovšek) – it is due to be Alice Coote in Edinburgh – and while the five songs were here a little unvaried, the restrained scoring sounded delightfully lucid and lively in this acoustic; an forgiving one in allowing the tiniest unkempt moments to be fully audible (and there were reminders that Bamberger Symphoniker is a ‘human’ orchestra) as well as vividly illuminating the excellence of the principal oboe and horn.

During the interval, Sybille (correctly) suggested that the hall would restrict the all-important double basses in the Bruckner; Douglas reckons the ceiling is too low. But the trumpets and trombones were more than audible, which Nott could have reined-in somewhat. His use of antiphonal violins was an aural plus-point, though.

After the performance a most pleasant reception was given for visiting journalists. Talking with Nott, Sybille wondered if the (left-positioned) double basses might be better as a row across the back of the platform, something that Nott seems to be considering. With the orchestra then off for at least three weeks’ holiday, Nott was hoping that all would be remembered for Edinburgh (Tristan rehearsals had already started), and a week before setting off for Scotland, a full week of further rehearsals is planned – more Tristan and a further developing of music that has already been performed by Nott and his musicians. Nott didn’t disagree that the Edinburgh Bruckner 9 would, in theory, be the next level up, an indication of growth and not resting on laurels. Otherwise, the repertoire is diverse: Ravel’s Boléro and Schoenberg’s Variations; Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody (with Stephen Hough); Mahler 5; and several pieces by one of Nott’s closest composers, Ligeti, including the 100-metronome Poème Symphonique: Nott was discussing the logistics of this intriguing entrée for 2 September; that’ll be a first for the Usher Hall!

I first met Englishman Nott in January this year – interviewing him for “Fanfare” (link below) – when he was making his official London debut, with the London Philharmonic, aged 42! That said, he did take over a London Sinfonietta concert about 15 years ago at very short notice, and which meant learning Berg’s Chamber Concerto overnight! Close associations with Ensemble Intercontemporain and, of course, Bamberger Symphoniker have given Nott a considerable reputation in Europe. That he has a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert in February 2006 is encouraging in a ‘prodigal’ sense.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh. Bruckner 9 in Bamberg was impressively taut and made ‘sense’ of Bruckner’s strange invention; it’s still an interpretation that is growing, though, and Edinburgh will be the next stage. And the programmes are all enticing. And the Tudor CDs continue. New is Schubert’s Symphonies 5 & 6 [7143] – time-taken, warm-sounded and pristinely detailed accounts that are refreshingly ‘old-fashioned’; and both finales are perfectly paced – that to No.5 receives as shapeliest an account as one could wish for. The second ‘Schubert Dialog’ release [7132] includes Jörg Widmann’s Lied, a 30-minute work that is also destined for Edinburgh, an impressive work that reminds at times, on a first hearing, of Mahler’s Symphony No.10. Again, follow the Tudor link, below; and do read the Classical Source interview with Nott, under which more links!

It was a real pleasure to meet Jonathan Nott again, and his wife for the first time, and also Paul Müller and Christian Schmölder who run the orchestra in various capacities and, note this, the “slim” administrative team of Bamberger Symphoniker is a mere six people. Their commitment is palpable, and achievements speak for themselves. It all seems to lead to Edinburgh 2005, and it’s a road that will be occupied not just by the good people of Bamberg and their enterprising conductor, but by those looking for musical stimulation and just a bit of craziness! My last word to Jonathan was “don’t forget the ocarinas” – they are needed for the first Edinburgh offering, Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff.

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