The music emerges tenderly, as if from another world – concentrated in feeling, affectionately moulded, full of spontaneous warmth. It comes as a jolt when a gravelly voice breaks the spell. It belongs to Andris Nelsons, music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
He is rehearsing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and I – perched self-consciously behind the conductor’s seat – make up the entire audience. The music has a different flavour to my first encounter with it in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice, where it haunted the action like an ever-darkening shadow. Here, in the intimacy of the CBSO Centre, Mahler’s soft threnody sounds more personal, more romantic – a point underlined by Nelsons when he starts to speak.
“This is a love song, written by the composer to his young wife [Alma Mahler],” he explains to the orchestra, as if rummaging behind the notes to find their meaning. “It’s not a sad, sentimental piece. Please, as if you would be singing ... ”
Nelsons’ observation, reinforced by his reference to the quick tempo adopted by Mahler disciples on early archive recordings, has an immediate impact. The Adagietto resumes with a more sustained line and continues uninterrupted until a passionate flourish near the end, at which point Nelsons exclaims above the music: “Thirty years ago with Simon!”
It’s a revealing comment. It suggests that, far from being intimidated by Simon Rattle’s legacy of Mahler performances in Birmingham, Nelsons wants to make positive use of it. Whoever you talk to at CBSO concerts, you sense much the same expectancy and excitement around Nelsons that his illustrious predecessor aroused in the 1980s.
Nelsons was already a rising star when he made his Birmingham debut three years ago. The orchestra was casting around for its next music director, and such was Nelsons’ impact that he was appointed after only one concert, taking up the reins less than 12 months later. Now in his third season, he is leading a Mahler cycle that has already won spectacular plaudits.
Most young conductors would have been hard put to maintain that sort of initial impact. But like Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan now in charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nelsons learnt his repertoire far from the spotlight of the world’s leading concert halls. Born and brought up in Latvia, he comes from a family of musicians and attended his first Wagner opera at the age of five. He made his conducting debut at 19. By the time of his first foreign engagements, he had already got to grips with Beethoven and Brahms. Mahler, too: he had eight of the nine symphonies under his belt before he arrived in Birmingham. Very few 32-year-olds have that sort of experience. Small wonder Nelsons knows what he wants from the famous Adagietto.
The rehearsal ends, the musicians disperse, and the big, broad-shouldered man who had been gesticulating a moment ago with such agility and authority starts talking to me – about his recent Bayreuth and Berlin Philharmonic debuts, about the Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber recordings he reveres, about the Birmingham musicians’ openness to new ideas and family atmosphere.
He talks of Mahler as a halfway point between Beethoven and Schubert on one hand and the 20th-century modernists on the other. “Mahler wants to share his suffering and involve all humanity, like Beethoven did,” he muses, sipping tea on a sofa in the conductor’s room backstage, “but in the harmony and the way he uses the orchestra, he goes his own way, very innovative. If he had lived long enough to complete a Tenth and Eleventh Symphony, he would have eclipsed Schoenberg [in breaking harmonic conventions].”
But was Nelsons not a bit young to have been conducting Mahler at the very outset of his career? “There is no right age,” he responds boyishly. “To understand something, you have to start early. You grow with the piece: it’s different every time because you get new ideas. Mahler’s Ninth [a symphony infused with premonitions of death] won’t automatically be successful just because you are older. No, you have to conduct it 25 times and then you might begin to understand it.”
That helps to explain why his Birmingham performance of the Eighth Symphony earlier this season made such an impact. It had a sure sense of architecture and an equally telling grasp of detail.
“If you get too involved in detail, you lose a sense of the whole. When [Leonard] Bernstein recorded it, it’s as if he wanted to squeeze life and death out of every note. But if you do it too broad-brush, painting with one colour, it becomes a giant snowball, mowing down everything in its way. You need the detail, the sensitivity and the sarcasm, but you also need to feel it is leading to something bigger. A philosophical vision is very important.”
He is “very glad” he did not find himself conducting such pieces for the first time in Birmingham or Berlin, “because when you stand in front of these orchestras, you have to have something to say. They don’t just want you to organise them technically, they need reasons why you are doing the piece.”
To hear Nelsons talking about music, especially a reference to what lies “behind the notes”, you could almost be listening to his mentor, Mariss Jansons, with whom he studied. They have the same nationality, the same conservative taste in music, a similar gestural language on the podium. Not all Nelsons’ interpretations have been equally convincing – his latest CBSO recording, of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, lacks Jansons’ sweep – and he admits that the past three years have been a bit of a whirlwind.
“But bad experiences can be instructive, too,” he says, referring to the pressure of work, travel and expectation he has faced on his climb up the career ladder. “Sometimes you need difficult experiences to understand some types of music. There are days when the rehearsal goes wrong, but to develop as a musician, as a human being too, you need to realise that a negative almost always produces a positive in the end.”