Andris Nelsons conducts Bruckner's 5th symphony

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday January 28 2017

Conductor: Andris Nelsons. The Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • Bruckner: Symphony N°5

My job takes me to all manner of industrial plants, and I well remember, in a German distillery, coming across the most beautiful machine I have ever seen: a complex, automated assembly of stainless steel and orange gloss, kept in splendid, pristine isolation in a glassed-in room. No photos were allowed, the process being a trade secret, and to my disappointment, not even on omniscient Google could I find a souvenir picture of this magnificent precision object.

I was reminded of this memorable piece of modern engineering on Saturday night, as Andris Nelsons conducted the Philharmonia in Bruckner’s 5th, in which every detail was perfectly honed and calibrated. Nelsons’ conducting gives the impression he has studied the score intensely, given every bar thought, and taken decisions at every step; and that on the night he is wholly – intensely indeed - devoted to helping the orchestra present those decisions with clarity and mastery. He looks totally involved in what he’s doing.

I was asked, before the concert, if I’d report back “on lines within the different parts, between them and on coherence and colors.” What can I say? To me this was perfection, absolutely Bruckner as I like him best. The degree of clarity and precision achieved was outstanding and the effects needed – e.g. the extraordinary dynamic range, totally under control - must only be possible with a team of musicians as professional as the Philharmonia at the peak of its form. Internal lines were clearly legible (you could take music dictation from this performance, like Mozart writing down the Vatican’s Miserere, though in this case you’d need as many arms as a Hindu deity to do it) and Nelsons paid evident attention to the crafting of handovers from, say, violins to violins or flutes to trumpets, or to mirrored lines. The transition from the Salvation-Army brass chorales in the last movement to the hushed strings had something miraculous about it, and the sheer excellence of the playing in the second movement almost brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

What he did not do, I’m glad to say, was to try to smooth out Bruckner’s blocky-ness, or I might say the weirdness that first intrigued me in Bruckner as a teenager. The sections remained distinct, the oddness of, e.g. those isolated clarinet octaves, was left intact. Yet with no loss of coherence: what really impressed me was the sense of inevitably, or everything being, as Radiohead might have put it, in its right place, and consistent in tone – in this case, warm, woody sound from the Philharmonia, plus of course rock-solid brass. This was not plush, velvety, romantic Bruckner, but modern Bruckner, looking forward. To mix my machine metaphor with another one for a moment, I had the admittedly slightly daft thought that it was as if, at the time of Winterhalter portraits, Bruckner was already inventing Cubism.

But back to the distillery. This performance was a big, precision machine in four main blocks all coupled together and running smoothly. It was the finest, most thrilling, most satisfying concert I’ve been to in a very long time and certainly one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. If Nelsons is always as good as this, I’m now a fan and will be looking out for his Paris appearances in the future – especially if Buckner’s other symphonies are in the works.


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