The Third Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition [25 February-5 March 2010]

Written by: Douglas Cooksey

Jonathan Nott (Principal Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra & President of the Jury)
Herbert Blomstedt (Honorary Life Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)
John Carewe (Conductor)
Jonathan Mills (Director of the Edinburgh International Festival & Composer)
Matthias Pintscher (Composer & Conductor)
Wolfgang Fink (General Manager of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)
Jan Nast (Managing Director of the Sächsiche Staatskapelle Dresden)
Luuk Godwalt (Member of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra)

Yordan Kamdzhalov, Aziz Shokhakimov, Jonathan Nott, Ainars Rubikis (left to right)

Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, that glorious leave-taking paragraph at the close of Mahler’s Fourth Symphiony might have served as a leitmotif for this whole week. Bamberg is exceptional in so many ways. Firstly, the place itself, magically preserving a mediaeval city interspersed with baroque – if Wagner were writing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the cast of characters would undoubtedly be from Bamberg – the sort of place where, walking home through the quiet cobbled streets after a concert, you know that the music does not end with the final chords. Secondly, the miracle that a small city of just 70,000 should be home to one of the world’s finest and most treasurable orchestras; warm, distinctive of timbre, and characterful in a way harking back to a time when orchestras nurtured their differences rather than trying to iron them out. Thirdly, a very special audience – there are no less than 7,000 local subscribers, who are both knowledgeable and passionate. You could have heard a pin drop at the close of the final concert, such was the quality of the listening.

The Bamberger Symphoniker Gustav Mahler Dirigentwettbewerb 2010, to give it its full title, runs for a week. Sadly, this year, Marina Mahler, the competition’s Patron and the composer’s grand-daughter, was unable to travel from her home in Spoleto because of a back problem. However, the collegial spirit of the competition was much in evidence. This may be a competition but it is a competition with a difference where competitors who have been eliminated stay to watch their peers, and even those in the Finals take visible pleasure in the success of other finalists.

A special word of praise for both orchestra and management: it must be hard on the orchestra working with twelve young conductors on the same pieces day after day. If so, the musicians never showed it, and the final concert was absolutely memorable. Similarly, the organisation of the event under the new Intendant (Wolfgang Fink) and his team was unobtrusive and seamless. Two small suggestions: given the level of interest in the competition amongst the general public, might it not be possible to admit them to all rounds and for regular subscribers to have a vote (it might not be the same as the Jury but it would certainly generate additional interest)?

Out of 300 applications from young conductors around the world, by the time of the pre-rounds on 25-27 February the field had been narrowed down to 12 contestants:

Elizabeth Askren (USA)

Seokwon Hong (South Korea)
Francesco Lanzillotta (Italy)
Scott Seaton (USA)
Lam Tran Dinh (Germany)
Ksenia Zharko (Russia)

Alexander Prior (UK & Russia)
Kosuke Tsunoda (Japan)
Cornelius Heine (Germany)
Yordan Kamdzhalov (Bulgaria)
Ainārs Rubiķis (Latvia)
Aziz Shokhakimov (Uzbekistan)

Of these the first six dropped out after the pre-rounds and then Alexander Prior (rather oddly described as “UK & Russia”) and Kosuke Tsunoda (Japan) dropped out after the Main Round on 1 March; hearsay had it that Prior did a generally excellent Mahler 4 but fell at the hurdle of acting as accompanist. Thus by the time the international press arrived on 2 March, just four contenders – the last four listed above – remained.

3 March

The Semi-finals involved all four competitors conducting the same two movements from Mahler 4, first the finale with an admirable young singer, Christina Landshammer, followed by the first movement. To close was the Minuet from Haydn’s Symphony No 104.

Cornelius Heine

The evening began unpromisingly with Cornelius Heine. Born in 1977, he was the oldest of the semi-finalists. Surprisingly for someone who had worked with singers, Heine was consistently too loud for his soloist, to whom he appeared to pay little attention. His rehearsal technique with the orchestra was serviceable but in reality he had very little to say that was interesting, whilst, surprisingly for a native German speaker, in the first movement he consistently misinterpreted Mahler’s detailed markings: frisch eliciting a near doubling in speed and wieder sehr ruhig a radical slowing up. There was not a dynamic in sight and nor was there any sense of a grund tempo. The Haydn Minuet was seldom together whilst in the Trio the tempo sagged.

Infinitely preferable was the thirty-year-old Bulgarian Yordan Kamdzhalov who had studied in Berlin and bore a more than passing resemblance to the young Celibidache. In Mahler’s finale (the childhood vision of Heaven) Kamdzhalov paid close attention to his soloist, dynamics were carefully restrained and, by contrast with the previous contestant, the orchestra played together. Kamdzhalov did not appear to refer to the score either here or in the first movement and thus gave his full attention to the orchestra, with whom he was unfailingly courteous. One small criticism: whilst there was no doubt after the first movement’s central climax that we had been to a very nasty place – rather like a Fairy Tale by the Brothers Grimm – at that point it did feel as though the movement had over-heated. The Haydn Minuet was offbeat, exuberant, light on its feet, unpredictably playful and true to the music’s spirit, although it was hardly the echt Deutsch rendering one could have imagined (and for that reason did not please certain critics or conductors who felt that accents were misplaced).

4 March

The following morning, reconvening for the other two semi-finalists, the chalk-and-cheese pattern of the previous evening repeated itself. The 22-year-old Uzbek, Aziz Shokhakimov, tackled Mahler’s delicate finale gracelessly, as though he were unleashing himself on the Fifth Symphony rather than the world of Wunderhorn. It was occasionally effective but completely unidiomatic. Shokhakimov consistently pushed the tempo and showed little regard to the vocal soloist soloist, whilst conversely the finale’s wonderful final paragraph, Kein Musik ist ja, was dragged out interminably at a tempo impossible to sustain. Both here and in the first movement Mahler’s careful markings were consistently misread, jumping the gun at Frisch or dragged out mercilessly at schwungvoll. It felt as though a child were at the wheel of a powerful car and knew nothing else but to press hard on the accelerator or slam on the brakes. The Haydn was similarly graceless.

Complete and welcome contrast came with the arrival of Ainārs Rubiķis, a Latvian who has a background in choral music and has conducted Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni at the Latvian National Opera. Immediately we re-entered the magical world of Wunderhorn: tempo not too fast, and able to hear the soprano because the basic dynamic levels were carefully observed – here was the only competitor who seemed to notice that the quick section of the finale starts mf not ff, and got the woodwind to decrescendo three bars later. The clincher came with Rubiķis’s performance of the first movement, a minefield which he negotiated with finesse, finding a rare delicacy which had eluded the other competitors – think Leopold Ludwig’s old vinyl recording from Dresden – and establishing a clear base tempo to which to return. As far as the Jury were concerned, one suspects, it was the stylish Haydn which was the decider.


Aziz Shokhakimov

With the Final scheduled for 17:00 the same day it came as a shock that the Jury should have settled on the 22-year-old Uzbek, Shokhakimov, as one of the two finalists and rather less of a shock that the other finalist should have been Rubiķis. My own vote – and that of many other commentators – would have been for Kamdzhalov. Having talked to several of the Jury about it subsequently, it seems that they were mindful of Shokhakimov’s youth and the fact that, growing up in Uzbekhistan, he had as yet been exposed to very little top-class music-making. As one member of the Jury put it to me, the feeling was that he would come on by leaps and bounds.

The Finals included a contemporary work – in the case of Shokhakimov, Jõrg Widmann’s Con Brio (2008), a Concert Overture given its UK premiere by the Bamberg Symphony at the BBC Proms in July 2009, and, from Rubiķis, Towards Osiris (2005) by Matthias Pintscher. The remainder of the programme in both cases was the middle two movements from Mahler 4.

Shokhakimov made a good job of the Widmann, which played to his strengths – it is high-octane driving music where rhythm is all, almost an aural assault-course, mostly at a decibel level scarcely tolerable – and he despatched it with gusto. Mahler’s second movement he saw as an erratic Totentanz initially taken swiftly but with a dramatic slowing-up for the section marked simply etwas gemächlicher which would not have been out of place as Tempo II in the Ländler of the Ninth Symphony. The slow movement was interminable – a colleague who timed it claimed 26 minutes – with every marking exagerrated to breaking point.

Rubiķis had much the harder number with Matthias Pintscher’s massive score (which was almost bigger than the conductor and provided one moment of unintentional hilarity as he struggled to set it down on the music stand). In any event, it was a much tougher nut than the Widmann, requiring not just rhythmic impetus but also colour and dynamics, both of which it received in abundance. Unfortunately Rubiķis then made a meal of the Mahler Ländler, constantly breaking its flow – at this point it seemed a real possibility that he might lose when he should have been shooting at an open goal. Fortunately, all was redeemed in the slow movement which flowered with the utmost delicacy – how rare to hear a young conductor bring to slow-moving music the most graceful line and texture, the opening and closing paragraphs hanging weightless in the air, concentration total – for its part the audience hung on every note.

After a short pause the winners were announced, Rubiķis most justifiably with First Prize, Shokhakimov with Second, and Kamdzhalov taking Third. Whilst I appreciate the Jury saw potential in Shokhakimov, I did not feel any underlying musicality or sensitivity to sound which is likely to blossom over the years, nor did I like his behaviour towards the excellent soprano soloist which struck me as patronising.

The Winner’s Concert

Ainārs Rubiķis

This took place twenty-four hours later in front of an audience of assembled luminaries and comprised a complete performance of Mahler 4. Having been fortunate enough to attend the closed rehearsal that morning, one had a fair idea of what to expect and so it proved: Rubiķis had rehearsed the orchestra in detail, sorting out most of the problems which had remained unresolved in the previous rounds – he is nothing if not persistent – and the resulting performance had an understated elegance and respect for the score which was deeply moving.

Some other commentators felt that the first movement was too non-threatening and that the Ländler was too gemütlich, but about the Ruhevoll and the concluding of the child’s vision of Heaven there was very little dissent. This was music-making of rare beauty and intelligence and the symphony’s four movements felt remarkably cohesive, one thing leading logically to another and the work adding up to a comprehensive whole in a way one rarely encounters, so that when we eventually reached that final paragraph there was a deeply satisfying sense of a journey completed and of having come full-circle.

One afterthought and a postscipt. The afterthought is that there are conductors who live off orchestras, jetting-in and jetting-out, and there are others who build orchestras, commanding their respect and rehearsing intensively. Rubiķis is definitely amongst the latter. Any orchestra fortunate enough to have him as a conductor will almost certainly emerge better at the end of his tenure than it was at the beginning. The important postscript is that Bamberger Symphoniker has something extremely precious in Mahler – in these days of metropolitan high-gloss Mahler, effortlessly these musicians seem to evoke the right soundworld and timbres in this music, a real living heritage.

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