Edinburgh International Festival – Bamberg Symphony/Nott (1)

Violin Concerto
Symphony No.5

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 August, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Despite the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra’s successful pair of concerts at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival, it was still something of a gamble for the organisers to have invited the orchestra and Jonathan Nott back for a five-evening residency, and with some highly adventurous programmes. On the evidence of this resoundingly successful first concert, the risk has paid off handsomely.

It was an act of some courage to open with György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (1992) albeit cannily backed with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In the event the Ligeti drew a protracted ovation from an audience that normally resists ‘modern’ music. But then Ligeti’s work speaks directly to the heart in the same way that has made Berg’s Violin Concerto a modern classic, and this was a performance of the most passionate commitment from Christian Tetzlaff and 28 musicians, the orchestration including such exotica as ocarinas, slide-whistles and a recorder.

The ‘Aria’ at the heart of Ligeti’s concerto is intensely beautiful music and memorably described by Paul Griffiths as “a folksong for the homeless”. What is so profoundly impressive about this five-movement concerto – three quick movements sandwiching the ‘Aria’ and a ‘Passacaglia’ – is the way Ligeti takes his listeners firmly by the hand and leads them into freshly imagined and original soundworlds, yet also creating music with a spiritual dimension that speaks directly. The concerto also achieves an in-your-face rhythmic power and immediacy that is out of all proportion to the modest forces employed. Tetzlaff made the ideal protagonist, playing with controlled abandon whilst Nott generated real electricity, especially at the work’s conclusion. From the confidence of the orchestra’s individual contributions one sensed that demanding music such as this forms a regular part of the Bambergers’ musical diet.

Part of the endless fascination of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is its pivotal role in the cycle, looking back to the ‘Wunderhorn’ world of the first four symphonies and also anticipating the darker worlds of the final symphonies. The Bambergers instinctively evoke the right sound for this music, and rather more naturally than some rather more famous ensembles. The strings are warm but not over-powerful with a particularly fine cello section whilst the winds are characterful and distinctive, a little reminiscent of the ‘old’ Czech Philharmonic at its best and reminding one that Bamberg itself nestles up against the Czech border – indeed the Bamberg Symphony was only established post-war from players largely drawn from the German Philharmonic in Prague. Fortunately, particularly for Mahler 5, the orchestra is also blessed with an excellent first horn, Samuel Seidenberg whose confident solos in the scherzo were played standing at the front of the orchestra, an idea that stems from Mahler himself.

Nott’s conception of the symphony was mercifully light on its feet and at its compelling best in the three central movements, catching with equal success the full vehemence of the second and the bittersweet landscape of the third movement Ländler; the famous Adagietto too had a songlike unaffected simplicity; Nott’s live performance felt significantly faster than his recent excellent recording for Tudor. That said, in the first movement, despite much beautiful heartfelt string-playing, the basic tempo was marginally too slow to accommodate the outburst just before the close without its jarring, and the tongue-in-cheek finale would have been even more subtly characterful with a slightly lighter touch from the strings.

What a joy though to hear an orchestra whose members so clearly relish making music together, at once spontaneous, adventurous and joyful. This is definitely an orchestra going places. One of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances was played as an encore.

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