Philharmonia Orchestra/Andris Nelsons – Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – Håkan Hardenberger plays HK Gruber’s Aerial

HK Gruber
Aerial (Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra)
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 22 February, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Håkan HardenbergerPhotograph: © Marco BorggreveAny opportunity to hear HK Gruber’s highly entertaining Aerial is to be welcomed. Håkan Hardenberger rose to the composer’s every challenge, by turns playing a trumpet in C, a piccolo trumpet, and a cow horn, with what may appropriately be described as breathtaking virtuosity. The beautiful myriad of sounds that Hardenberger drew from the cow horn in the first movement offered but one example of the enormous range of expression at his command; another appeared in the vivacious second where a plethora of rhythms and colours astonished one’s ears. Hardenberger likens this music to Earth as seen from a far-off planet via a telescope, the observer seeing nothing but desolation, apart from a sign that reads ‘Gone Dancing’ – the movement’s ambiguous title. But the dance in question is an unsettled one, with something akin to Ravel’s La valse about it – ebullient and enigmatic at one and the same time. Andris Nelsons and Hardenberger caught this mood wonderfully well. Here is music that commands our attention during every second of its 30 minutes.

Would this could be said of the Mahler performance. The architecture of the Fifth Symphony seemed totally lost on Nelsons in this episodic interpretation. There were distinctive contributions from Alistair Mackie (trumpet), Katy Woolley (horn), and the woodwind and cello sections, but Nelsons’s reading was characterised by a lack of direction and a degree of sluggishness. Yes, there were individual moments that grabbed one’s attention, for instance ominous comments from the lower strings early in the first movement, but as a whole it was not dramatically convincing. It was also poorly integrated and lacked the passion that is de rigueur in this music.

Andris NelsonsPhotograph: Marco BorggreveSimilar comments may be applied to the next two movements, not least the Scherzo, where even the whirling Viennese-dance episode (some kinship here with Gruber’s sequence) was short on the appropriate aura. And so to the famous Adagietto, which in this reading lasted about ten minutes – a fairly average timing these days, as compared with Willem Mengelberg’s seven (in his 1926 recording), which still manages to be affecting. The tone of Nelsons’s account was objective rather than emotional, whereas we are told (Alma Mahler claimed this) that the composer described the music as a love-letter. Here it felt unusually detached.

This Philharmonia Orchestra account was not redeemed by the finale, in which a sense of drama, passion and cohesion continued to be in short measure. Even the final pages did not accord us a convincingly triumphant denouement because such an outcome was sadly vitiated by what had gone before. But thank goodness for the thrilling Gruber.

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