Gewandhausorchester © Jens Gerber, 2016

From ascending light to endless night: Andris Nelsons with the Gewandhaus Orchestra

A prelude to his appointment as Gewandhauskapellmeister this autumn, Andris Nelsons’ 2nd June concert with the Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, had all its familiar magic. That he continues to hold his Music Directorship at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in parallel, allows for fruitful musical cross-fertilisation, an example of which was the German premiere of Ascending Light by Boston-based composer Michael Gandolfi, with which the concert opened.

This remarkable organ concerto was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2012, in remembrance of its late organist Berj Zamkochian and his Armenian heritage. Completed in 2015 – the centenary of the Armenian genocide — the title of the work is a translation of the Armenian hymn, Aravot lousaber, on which the last portion of the concerto is based.

The first movement, Vis Vitalis, refers to a life-force that is the spirit of Armenia – those Armenians who lost their lives in the genocide of 1915, and those who lived to tell the tale. It begins with slow drum beats depicting an inexorable march towards a tragic destiny whose presence is everywhere subliminal. And yet the mood is brave, life-affirming; this is no requiem. The second movement begins with a pastoral lyricism, based on an Armenian folk melody, the Lullaby of Tigranakert, followed by intricate fugal exchanges between organ and orchestra. The sheer grandeur and scale of this work, with its arches of contrapuntal harmonies through which echoing resonances of the organ weave their way, recall Bruckner; and yet the melodies are far from Germanic, sounding almost Eastern, with semitones playing an integral, rather than incidental, role in cadences. The final section of the second movement, Aravot lousaber, based on the eponymous Armenian hymn, is a triumph of life over death, of courage over repression; the opening chorale runs into an uplifting coda, as light ascending from an unimaginable darkness.

The second and last work in the concert was Mahler’s Sixth ‘Tragic’ Symphony. Its ominous opening drum rolls, lavish orchestration (two harps, large brass and woodwind, and innovative timpani) and fugal motifs were points of commonality with Ascending Light; its spirit, however, was a complete contrast to the latter. Wilhelm Furtwängler described Mahler’s Sixth as ‘the first nihilist work in the history of music’. Bruno Walter, despite being Mahler’s friend and champion of his music, found the piece too dark for him to conduct, since it ‘ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul’. Curiously, although this symphony was written at the happiest time of Mahler’s life – started after his marriage to Alma, and continued during the birth of a daughter — it had an almost prophetic sense of tragedy: soon after its final revision, Mahler’s contract with the Vienna State Opera ended, his daughter died, and he was diagnosed with the fatal heart condition which was to kill him four years later.

The first movement, Allegro energico, ma non troppo: Heftig, aber marking was vigorous, played with the Eastern European passion that Nelsons employs so often with good effect: from the ominous beginning, through the lyrical second theme, to the pastoral evocations via cowbells. The second movement Scherzo: Wuchtig built on these incongruities in typical Mahlerian fashion, combining childlike as well as popular musical forms. The still centre of the work was undoubtedly the Andante moderato, whose very simplicity ‘recalled times of joy in wretchedness’; Nelsons’ conception of this was almost unbearable in its nostalgia and melancholy.

The last, tormented movement, Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – Allegro energico, was almost as much a test of endurance for the audience as it was for the orchestra. Nelsons drew this out to nearly forty minutes, and the audience teetered on many precipitous peaks of emotion, which promised resolutions that never arrived; a major feature was the punctuation of the movement on two occasions by the deafening thumping of a gigantic box by a wooden sledgehammer, which still didn’t drive the symphony towards a climax. The end was a relentless prolongation of agony, every bit as nihilistic as promised: an endless, dark night of the soul.