Nelsons’ Electrifying Season Opener in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Mahler: Sarah Fox (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 15.9.2012 (JQ)

R. Strauss – Metamorphosen
Mahler – Symphony No 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’

Fresh from several high profile summer engagements, including Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony at the BBC Proms (a recording is imminent on the Orfeo label) and a residency at the Lucerne Festival, during which they performed Mahler’s Second, Andris Nelsons and the CBSO returned to Symphony Hall to open their 2012/13 season.

Most conductors would consider Mahler’s Second Symphony to be sufficient as a complete programme and, in fact, I can’t immediately recall attending a performance of the work at which any other music was played. However, Andris Nelsons decided to preface Mahler’s huge symphony with a substantial ‘upbeat’ in the shape of Strauss’s Study for 23 solo strings. This was quite an appropriate choice for several reasons, I thought. In the first place this small ensemble formed the most effective contrast possible, in terms of scale, to the vast forces that were to be deployed after the interval. However, it also worked on a couple of other levels. Nelsons and the CBSO are to perform all the Beethoven symphonies this season and as Metamorphosen springs from a thematic cell in the slow movement of the ‘Eroica’ – albeit the link may have been unconscious on Strauss’s part, as Michael Kennedy suggested in his programme note – the choice of Metamorphosen as a season opener was apposite. Furthermore, Metamorphosen was, in Mr Kennedy’s words, “a memorial to the aspects of German culture” destroyed by the Nazi regime and the Second World War. Mahler famously described the first movement of ‘Resurrection’ as the funeral rites for the hero of his First Symphony so perhaps there’s a parallel of sorts between these two works.

Metamorphosen, for which the violinists and violists played standing up, received a splendid, glowing performance. In the opening measures the lower strings played with lustrous, rich tone and this proved to be a harbinger of the performance as a whole. Although only 23 players are involved the textures often seem as complex as anything that you’ll find in, say, Ein Heldenleben. It seemed to me that Nelsons and his players achieved a fine clarity throughout despite the richness of tone and despite the passion with which the piece was delivered. Amid much distinguished and eloquent playing the sinuous contributions of leader Laurence Jackson regularly stood out. Nelsons kept the music moving forward with good purpose so that warmth of phrasing never slipped over into sentimentality. As the piece progressed he built the tension incrementally until the music achieved a final climax of great ardour before sinking back to a hushed yet intense conclusion. Nelsons and the CBSO are making a series of recordings of the orchestral music of Strauss and I hope they’ll include Metamorphosen.

The vast scale of Mahler’s Second Symphony was in marked contrast to Strauss’s rich yet intimate piece. Nelsons fairly launched into the first movement, for which his basic tempo was decidedly brisk. The music crackled with electricity, even when Nelsons slowed down for the more reflective and nostalgic passages. The overall effect was undeniably exciting on the night – there was a Solti-like drive – though I did wonder if perhaps the music was pressed with just a little too much urgency at times. The attack from the CBSO, which played superbly throughout the symphony, was thrilling. Mahler prescribed a pause of at least five minutes after the first movement and, in truth, a pause is essential, especially after such an urgent reading as this one. However, I think five minutes is dangerously long; concentration can waver. I thought Nelsons’ solution of waiting for just a couple of minutes was pragmatic and the audience was commendably quiet during this break.

The Andante bears the instructions ‘Sehr gemächlich – Nie eilen’ (‘very comfortably /leisurely – never rushing’); I thought Nelsons followed these instructions expertly. The playing had a becoming lightness throughout and the many little nudges of rubato that Nelsons induced seemed thoroughly idiomatic. He treated the music affectionately and his facial expressions indicated that he was enjoying greatly the warm string tone and phrasing. The music was pointed quite marvellously and there was attention to detail in abundance yet the results never seemed contrived. The third movement was equally well played and imagined. Mahler’s spiky, sardonic elements came over well while the nostalgic side of the music was delivered with a suitable – and appropriate – degree of schmaltz.

I can’t recall that I’ve previously encountered the Japanese mezzo, Mihoko Fujimura but on the evidence of this performance that’s very much my loss. Her singing of ‘Urlicht’ – from memory – was simply outstanding. Her tone was lovely and there was great clarity to her singing – every word was enunciated beautifully. Furthermore she sang with great conviction. This was a most involving piece of singing which I enjoyed greatly.

Nelsons unleashed the vast finale most excitingly and then proceeded to direct a splendidly theatrical, gripping account of this huge symphonic fresco. The offstage recesses of Symphony Hall are ideal for the offstage brass contributions and these came across to excellent effect here. It seemed to me that Nelson’s pacing of the finale was ideal, both in terms of individual episodes and the overall structure. The main allegro episode found the CBSO playing as if their lives depended on it; this was real edge-of-the seat stuff and it led to a climax immediately before the groβe Appell that was truly cataclysmic. The groβe Appell itself is a moment of pure musical theatre and it was splendidly realised here; the offstage brass calls – the Last Trump – echoed with a proper sense of awe and Marie-Christine Zupancic’s flute provided the nightingale’s last flickerings of earthly life.

The CBSO Chorus have sung Mahler’s Second around the world and are seasoned exponents of the piece. I’ve heard choirs sing ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n’ more softly but usually at the price of definition. Here the choir achieved an ideal balance between soft singing on the one hand and firm tone and clear words on the other. Singing from memory – and seated until late on in the choral section – the CBSO Chorus made a splendid contribution. At ‘O glaube’ we had another opportunity to savour Mihoko Fujimura’s excellent mezzo. Sarah Fox produced some silvery tones during her solos but seemed a bit tentative at times; she was not as commanding a vocal presence as was Miss Fujimura. The end of the symphony, for which eight extra brass players and the Symphony Hall organ were thrown into the mix, was overwhelming – as it should be – and even with the CBSO at full tilt their colleagues in the chorus made their collective presence felt over them. The audience was, unsurprisingly, exultant, according the performers a richly-deserved standing ovation. It was telling, I thought, that at one stage the orchestra pointedly refused no less than three times to stand to take a bow, insisting instead that Nelsons should acknowledge the applause by himself. Clearly they rate their charismatic young conductor and I’m not surprised.

This electrifying performance launched the CBSO’s new season most auspiciously.

John Quinn