Notes and Editorial Reviews
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Symphony No. 8.
Dance of the Seven Veils.
Andris Nelsons, cond; Royal Concertgebouw O
C MAJOR 710004 (Blu-ray: 100:00) Live: Lucerne 9/4/11
Andris Nelsons has generated a considerable buzz and this video gives those who haven’t encountered his work before an idea of what all the shouting’s about. Nelsons has conducted at Bayreuth and is currently music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a post held for a long stretch by a certain frizzy-haired Brit who has since gone on to find steady work in Berlin. The young Latvian conductor—formerly an orchestral trumpet player and a longtime conducting student of Mariss Jansons—looks
happy to be on stage at Lucerne, like a 10-year-old boy who has been invited into the dugout of his favorite professional baseball team. And why shouldn’t he? At 33, he’s conducting the Concertgebouw at one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals.
This Blu-ray presents Nelsons’s complete program of September 4, 2011. He leads off with the
Overture, opting for deliberate tempos for both the slower and faster sections, which works very well; you’ll not hear a more soulful rendering of the overture’s principal theme. Next follows an effective version of
; Nelsons gets credit for good pacing, though the success of this piece depends as well on brilliant orchestral playing, definitely not in short supply here.
In the Shostakovich symphony, the main event, Nelsons is a little overparted. As with the Wagner and Strauss selections, the young conductor uses a score, which doesn’t necessarily reflect any insecurity or a lack of familiarity with the music, but he
seem to be following the printed page pretty closely at times. The lengthy first movement doesn’t gel as well as it does in more experienced hands, in the sense of presenting a coherent narrative structure. Likewise, the second-movement Allegretto is missing the ultimate degree of pithy irony, what the notes correctly refer to as “the ambiguous, false-bottomed nature of a work that conceals beneath its surface the idea of an individual trampled underfoot by uncontrolled brutality and despotism.” I’ve heard numerous versions of III that are more savage and harrowing, including Bernard Haitink’s early 1980s version with the same orchestra, part of the very first complete Shostakovich symphony cycle. It’s with the final two movements that this still-developing musician best reveals his potential. Nelsons sustains a level of tension throughout the Largo, exploiting the potential for cumulative expressive power that derives from that movement’s passacaglia form. With the transition into the tentative sunlight of the Finale, it’s abundantly clear that Nelsons “gets” Shostakovich’s message about the futility of war and the composer’s deep questioning of what was accomplished by all the carnage he’d just witnessed.
The entire concert is very effectively filmed by a director (Ute Feudel) who obviously understands the construction and meaning of the music, and the visuals are stunning. Close-ups of individual players are very involving—the extended bass clarinet passage in the last movement, or the cello solo that follows shortly thereafter. The high-resolution audio isn’t exceptional. It’s tonally appealing but a little closed-in; even surround-sound playback fails to give as much of a sense of the hall as is heard with Abbado’s Mahler recordings from the same venue.
FANFARE: Andrew Quint
It’s good to see more Shostakovich appearing on DVD and Blu-Ray. The recent Fifths from Leonard Bernstein and the LSO – and Yutaka Sado and the Berliner Philharmoniker – are both superb. Coincidentally it was with the BP that I first heard Andris Nelsons conduct the Eighth, a taut, hard-hitting performance accessed online via The Digital Concert Hall. Now in charge of the CBSO, Simon Rattle’s old band, Nelsons has had good reviews in both the concert hall and opera house, conducting
Lohengrin on the opening night at Bayreuth in 2010. Given his passion for Wagner – attributed to a performance of
a(user he attended as a youngster – it seems fitting that this Lucerne Festival concert should kick off with the overture to Wagner’s early opus,
And goodness, what a fine performance it is, from that glorious trumpet solo at the start through to those dance-like episodes and imposing climax. There’s plenty of bite and amplitude here, although – in PCM stereo at least – the bass lacks solidity and the brass has a bright edge at times. That’s hardly a deal-breaker when Nelsons shapes the music so naturally and builds tension so well; besides, it’s clear from his endearingly goofy grin that he’s enjoying every minute of this effervescent score. I’m much less persuaded by his reading of the Strauss though, as it lacks the febrile, slightly crazed intensity of, say, Solti or Bernstein. That said, those strange string curlicues and sinuous rhythms emerge with telling clarity.
Given these minor reservations, how does the Shostakovich fare? The start of the first movement has seldom sounded so inward, its pulse so faint; as for those upward, string-driven spirals they’re superbly done. Immediately one senses Nelsons has this music at his expressive fingertips, the manic energy and big, rolling tuttis of the movement’s second half dispatched with terrific weight and splendour. It’s the inner landscape that impresses most, the drained, bloodless ending both miraculous and moving. True, the sound isn’t
quite as expansive or as three-dimensional as that on Sado’s Shostakovich 5, but it hardly matters when the Concertgebouw play with such sophistication and subtlety, or when the performance is so gripping.
The twitching Allegretto is equally arresting, rhythms drum tight and articulation pin sharp. Nelsons’ tempi are perfectly judged too, the minutes passing swiftly and with oodles of ear-caressing detail. This is shaping up to be a remarkable performance, the Allegro non troppo blessed with a transported trumpet solo that’s every bit as thrilling – nay, intoxicating – as that on Mravinsky’s live Amsterdam CD (Philips). And if that weren’t enough the timps, side-drum and tam-tam are a knock-out, the long, singing lines of the Largo a masterclass in sustained loveliness. The start of the Allegretto is perkier and more playful than most, that pivotal peroration simply seismic; as for the distilled beauty of the lingering finale, I’ve never been so profoundly moved by it as I was here.
It’s quite some time before the deep spell is broken, Nelsons lowering his baton and clasping his hands in silent gratitude, perhaps as much to the composer for this masterpiece as to the orchestra for their peerless playing. I’m simply awe-struck by the level of insight and understanding that Nelsons brings to this score, making it a worthy companion for the likes of Mravinsky and Wigglesworth – on CD and SACD respectively. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say this is the finest version of the Eighth I’ve heard, irrespective of format. Normally the mildly disappointing Strauss would preclude me from making this a Recording of the Month, but in the presence of such a paradigm-shifting symphony nothing else will do.
Fine Wagner, good Strauss, inspired Shostakovich.
-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in C minor, Op. 65 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1943; USSR
Rienzi: Overture by Richard Wagner
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Written: 1840-1843; Germany
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