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Andris Nelsons

An afternoon to remember at Symphony Hall with composer Andris Nelsons. Gary Whitehouse is among the appreciative audience.

It is said in musical circles, that you haven’t really experienced Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in D Minor (The Resurrection) until you have heard it performed live. With the sun shining brightly on the Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon, I had just that opportunity, courtesy of Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and what an experience it proved to be.

Rarely can a work of such challenge appear on a concert programme, for this is music on a truly gigantic scale. Originally scored for orchestra, a mixed choir, soprano and mezzo soloists, organ, an offstage ensemble of brass and percussion, Mahler uses all to affirm his belief in life after death through some of the most spiritually inspired music ever written.

Nothing is ever simple with Mahler. He is a composer that perhaps demands more emotional interpretation than others and The Resurrection has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult piece for conductor and orchestra to perform. With Mahler’s writing in of hundreds of subtle tempo markings for each instrument, its pace and undercurrents continually shift, as the composer struggles to reconcile his doubt in God with a belief in the life eternal.

Over the years, The Resurrection has itself become something of a rite of passage for every composer of the CBSO – an expectation that they must take up the challenge of this awesome piece to almost prove himself worthy of the baton.

I had experienced Nelsons conduct Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with the CBSO Youth Orchestra in October 2008 and was impressed then with the energy, control and passion of his interpretation. The question now was, would he be up to the challenge of The Resurrection?

The question of course, proved to be rhetorical and rhetorical questions seldom need an answer. From the moment Nelsons took to the podium, a strident figure in his black silk shirt, coolly dressed in all senses for the task ahead, and summoned the hair raising opening bars for the deep strings, dark, somber and stirring, I was never in any doubt that he was.

This was a performance to admire. From the depths of the despair of the opening funeral march, stormy and dramatic, with its tense theme of cellos and double basses, the second movement’s graceful intermezzo and pizzicato played by all the strings, the third movement’s frenzied twisting of the main theme, distorted and anguished, the fourth movement’s beautiful and inspiring song with its plaintive "I am from God and will return to God," right through to the glorious huge chorale finale that spoke as angels when "the earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession”, the musical landscape opened up with a breathtaking intensity and power that at times almost lifted the audience from their seats.

There were some truly memorable moments. The Fifth Movement in particular will remain vivid for years to come. I began this review by suggesting that you haven’t really experienced The Resurrection, until you’ve heard it performed live, and for me there was in this Movement the defining moment of my experience. The original score calls for ‘’a second orchestra far, far away off-stage to play in echo of the first one.”

This afternoon, not so much an orchestra but horns and the effect was unearthly. For a short while there was the spectacle of Nelsons conducting an orchestra that were silent and did not move, but still the ghostly music came and then Andrew Lane on piccolo answered with a beautifully haunting solo. Then began the final giant chorus, singing at first so softly as to be barely audible. Truly breathtaking.

The whole of the CBSO and Symphony Chorus must be congratulated on their performance. The players rose to the task with an enthusiasm and careful attention to detail – every instrument came through with clarity. The soloists were captivating. Mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura’s beautiful voice had both the depth and range to express the sentiment of “Urlicht” and the almost ethereal purity of soprano Sarah Fox was perfect for her part with the chorus.

Nelson’s conducted, as we audiences at the Symphony Hall have come to expect, with flair and exuberance, like a man possessed. Possessed with what? Possessed with the very spirit of the music. For this was not mere showmanship but a genuine integral expression of the relationship between man and music. With hands reaching up as if to grasp the very highest notes from the air and at times almost threatening to leap from the podium, he was yet ever sensitive to the intricacies of the pace that shifted throughout the piece, fluid, like water, and alive to the intimacies and beauties of the solos, bringing a balance, clarity and precision to the whole piece.

Nelson’s conducting was not without moments of delightful humour either, which spoke volumes for the man’s confidence and enjoyment of his work. At the end of the Second Movement, he brought matters to a close with an understated and unexpected little twist and flick of the wrist that brought a spontaneous ripple of appreciative laughter from the audience.

Who says that conductors don’t have to be fit to ply their trade? The Resurrection lasted for nearly a solid ninety minutes and I would defy most of us to keep up with the pace that Nelsons set at the podium. I can only remember him pausing once, between the First and Second Movements to wipe his brow. For the record too, Mahler calls for a five minutes pause between the end of the First Movement and the start of the Second. I timed the interlude today at one minute and forty six seconds. Little chance to gain breath, perhaps.

At the end, Nelsons, black shirt now soaked and sticking to his back, was joined on stage by Simon Halsey, Chorus Director to receive the rapturous cheers of a standing ovation that was nearly a full five minutes in duration. Fully deserved for all who took part in this memorable performance.

If I hadn’t really experienced The Resurrection before, I certainly had now.



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