The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is of the latter kind. It would be hard for the players not to respond to the spacious, precise, thrilling gestures of Jonathan Nott. There are no astonishing soloists, no moments of eye-opening magic. But the spontaneity - amounting to a wild abandon in the second movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony - and the leap and lilt of rhythms, the generous breadth of the cadences, the fire that smoulders and blazes, these come from Nott's lucid imagination.
He has credentials also in modern music. This concert began with Ligeti's Violin Concerto, played by Christian Tetzlaff. It's really a chamber work, using a small group of players for a mixture of iridescence and rhetoric. With its out-of-tune strings, its fishy-sounding ocarinas, it joins galactic mystery to a childlike quality, notably in the second movement, which Tetzlaff began with naive simplicity, trawling a weary melody out of some distant century. Nott and his soloist managed to locate the piece in a unique, undiscovered, expressive space.
You would have thought that the addition of a starry line-up of singers, the following evening, would have given us a truly great experience. But this concert performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was unsatisfactory. Christine Brewer is a great Isolde, and Christian Franz, the Tristan, is an artist of taste and dramatic force, with a mettlesome heroic tenor. Brewer's limitless flow of creamy tone, her supreme mastery of every phrase and range, should have done the trick. But she was inflexible, unvaried, seeming sometimes ill at ease. Franz, on the other hand, was apparently unwell. The tone became increasingly husky. His careful pacing of the role, conserving his voice, eventually left little to enjoy, though his vocal acting in Act III was impressive.
Jane Irwin was a handsome, generous Brangäne who aptly caught Isolde's stormy emotion, John Relyea a noble and tragic Mark, Juha Uusitalo a weighty Kurwenal.
Nott kept the performance moving, especially in self-indulgent numbers such as the great love duet and the Liebestod. There were some exciting moments, typical of Nott, such as the feverish turmoil as Tristan imagined that Isolde was coming to Kareol. But sometimes the singers felt hustled, and the orchestra sounded bored.
With so many excellences, this performance should have added up to something very special. Yet it retained some of the problems of many concert performances; ultimately, it felt like a bundle of top people flown in from all over the world who did not fully meet as a dramatic cast.