Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott

Mahler: Symphony No 2 'Ressurection'

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 21 March 2008 5 stars

Jonathan Nott (credit: Priska Ketterer/Artist 2004The genesis of the Bamberg Orchestra is little known. Bamberg is a small town in the hills of Upper Bavaria and does not have any further distinctions other than the one that attaches to the Orchestra. When millions of Germans were driven out of the newly-reformed Czech Republic after the end of the war, many members of the Prague Symphony Orchestra had to flee and resurfaced as refugees in the area near the old Czech frontier. Only a few years prior to this, many of the Czech members of the orchestra had to flee the invading Nazi armies.

Bamberg, a cultural centre even in the days of the old principalities, welcomed and supported the rebirth of the Prague Symphony on German soil and entirely in German hands, under its director, Joseph Keilberth, a Kapellmeister of great reputation. A few years ago the town built a magnificent Concert Hall, which is the home of the orchestra. The orchestra grew in numbers and in excellence, and it achieved the distinction of being the most widely travelled ensemble in Europe. After a number of distinguished directors, amongst them the veteran Horst Stein of Bayreuth fame, Jonathan Nott, who already had wide and important continental experience, took over the orchestra in 2000 and is now totally committed to it, He brought it up to the highest international standards of excellence. They have been resident orchestra at the Edinburgh and Lucerne Festivals, where Nott was also Conducteur Etoile; they have appeared at the Proms; they have visited Russia, China, Japan and the United States. Nott is in great demand all over the continent, also as an opera conductor, and a couple of years ago he also became the Director and Principal Conductor of the Ensemble InterContemporain, in Paris, an organization founded by Pierre Boulez. With the Berlin Philharmonic he has recorded several of Ligeti's major orchestral works. This amply demonstrates the wide range of his interests.

Their performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony at the Festspielhaus at Baden-Baden was a brilliant exercise even at the level of logistics. To have moved two hundred musicians and singers, complete with eight timpani and a majestic bass drum, which, when in full flow almost rent the skies above the hall, and all this within a day, covering several hundreds of miles in busses, was more an act of dedication than just filling a date in their extensive travelling schedule.

Before this concert, Jonathan Nott was known to me only through his recordings. He conducted this monumental work without a score. To be able to do this for Mahler’s Second Symphony shows more than just having an elephantine memory: it reveals a degree of dedication and identification with the work This was obvious to me after the very start – a notoriously difficult task to move the entire string section right from the opening in a fiercely impetuous unison. His extraordinarily graceful body language was not merely a sign of swimming along with a well rehearsed orchestra for the sake of impressing the audience, It was a beautifully conceived choreography, shaping and explaining every single entry, every change in mood and those innumerable sudden outbursts of frantic anguish. When it came to the whispering pizzicato runs filling the air in the second movement with its ironic Ländler surfacing now and then, I had to admire the precision of Nott’s baton technique, with which he ruled five dozen assorted string players to play as one. In building up to those almost cataclysmic climaxes, both in volume and intensity, he appeared almost to float above the orchestra. At the other pole of the acoustic onslaught, he prepared a beautifully hushed atmosphere for the entries of the soloists (alto Lioba Braun and soprano Anne Schwanewilms) and the Chorus of the Bamberger Symphoniker.

Jonathan Nott, to me, was a superb interpreter, because of his extraordinary grasp and obviously deeply felt understanding of the monumental structure of the work. He almost made me feel that I was taking part in the performance, not only as a listener. There was an unusually long silence at the end of the performance – a sign that deep emotions had been raised, and prolonged and grateful applause ended a memorable evening.

By Francis Shelton