Graceful Mozart, Exhilarating Beethoven from CBSO


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven: Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 22.03.2013 (GPu)

Wagner, Overture, The Flying Dutchman
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488
Beethoven, Symphony No. 7

Even as an admirer of Andris Nelsons and much of the work he has done with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I have to report that this concert got off to a slightly ‘flat’ start. The performance of the Flying Dutchman overture which opened proceedings contained an unduly decorous and polite storm and neither conductor nor orchestra really seemed to commit themselves to the romantic excess of Wagner’s music. Everything in the playing was technically assured, especially the work of the brass and woodwind sections, but the vital spark was missing. The strings were fleet of hand and finger, totally precise, but could have been somewhat fuller of tone. But if things began a trifle disappointingly, they rapidly improved, and what followed was of a high order and profoundly satisfying.

K.488 is a quintessentially Mozartean work, subtler and more various than is sometimes recognised. Paul Lewis is, of course, a considerable Mozart player and in the opening allegro, after the opening orchestral bars had been played with real idiomatic conviction, Lewis’ entry raised the stakes a good deal. His clarity and limpidity of phrase and line, his fusion of muscularity and delicacy (neither carried to extremes) seemed to elicit similar virtues from the CBSO. Lewis’ playing throughout the concerto was a thing of beauty and utter delight. Even the most deceptively simple phrase was made to sing, and there was a remarkable and rarely-encountered air of naturalness in the way in which Mozart’s seemingly bubbling forth of invention was put before the listener. There were, too, recognitions of the darker questions which underlie the dominant mood of the movement. The adagio’s wistful gravity and subtly insistent unease were communicated beautifully by both soloist and orchestra, the mood deepening at times to a painfully forlorn melancholy. The closing allegro found in Mozart’s music that elusive quality of utter gracefulness, both in the sense of being very elegant and in the word’s older sense, of something imbued with a sense of divine grace. That sense of music filled with a blessedness which was the product of more than the human will alone gave a remarkable quality to a movement which in lesser hands can sound simply ‘cheerful’. The whole, on this occasion, had a benedictory quality. This, surely, is the music of sublimely creative genius wholly aware of and pleased with itself (though without the slightest hint of smugness). Only something pretty special could have adequately (let alone successfully) followed the mood of absolute benignity created by this reading of K.488. Fortunately, what followed met the considerable challenge thus posed.

Most writers on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony tell us that Wagner described the work as “the apotheosis of the dance”. The phrase is justly famous, but is often quoted inaccurately (as above). Wagner actually wrote of the symphony as the “Apotheosis of Dance herself”. The suggestion is that what Beethoven elevates to divine status is not just dancing, not a particular kind of dance, but the very spirit of Dance itself, its very nature. But what is that? It is worth quoting the relevant passage in full: “All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart becomes here the blissful innocence of joy, which snatches us away with bacchanalian might and bears us through the roomy space of Nature, through all the streams and seas of Life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we tread throughout the Universe the daring measures of this human sphere-dance. This symphony is the Apotheosis of Dance herself: it is Dance in her highest aspect, as it were the loftiest Deed of bodily motion incorporated in an ideal mould of Tone. Melody and Harmony unite around the sturdy bones of Rhythm …”. This is the dance of consciousness and cosmos, dance as an archetypal image of the world’s governing principles, a celebration of energy and order and an enactment (a dance) expressive of the endless fertility of their necessary relationship of mutual interdependence.

Rarely, if ever, have I heard a performance of this Symphony which made me think (and feel) in such terms as I listened to it. Something else which returned to my mind during, and after, the performance was the phrase “charged with meaning to the utmost degree”. I was remembering it from Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) and its electrical metaphor seemed peculiarly apt for this gripping performance. At times conducting and playing seemed almost frenzied, but only almost; the counterbalancing principle of order (which can make a dance of frenzy) was never forgotten. Nelson’s respect for the work’s architecture was as unflagging as the energy and ferocity of some of his rhythms and tempi. This was a hymn to vitality performed in the knowledge that life has its necessary and inherent structures. This was typified in the manner in which Nelsons made clear the way in which the harmonic and rhythmic pattern at the opening of the Allegretto are the seeds for all that follows in the rest of that fascinating, complex and yet wholly organic movement.

Variations came into flower in sequence, sometimes slowly and almost imperceptibly, sometimes almost explosively. Even in the still startling Allegro con brio which closes the work – for Beethoven’s original audiences this movement must have been as challenging as The Rite of Spring was for its Paris audience in 1913 (some of those performing the music suspected that the movement was the product of drunkenness or incipient insanity) – even here, Nelsons, while fully responsive to those dimensions in the music which Bateman Edwards (The Analytical Concert Guide, ed. Biancolli and Mann, 1951) characterised with words and phrases such as “terrifying … display of force”, “the whirlwind of the first subject”, “loud and dizzying final theme”, “a climax which leaves one torn between panic and exhilaration”, was also alert and faithful to the movement’s architecture.

Because this balance was maintained, one’s feeling at the close was far more of “exhilaration” than “panic”. I would hesitate, to put it mildly, to undertake any attempt to demonstrate analyticallythe Symphony’s coherence. But one likes to think that had he heard Nelson’s performance, Nicholas Slonimsky would not have written as he did in The Harmonicon in 1825: “Often as we have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts”. Andris Nelsons certainly could “trace” such connections (without losing any sense of what Slonimsky described, in the same essay, as the work’s “eccentricity”, which he found “disagreeable”.

A concert which started somewhat unexcitingly grew to an exhilarating climax.

Glyn Pursglove


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