Andris Nelsons and the CBSO in White-Hot Tchaikovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky:  Daniel Müller-Schott (cello), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 25.9.2013 (JQ)


Marche Slave, Op. 31(1876)
Rococo Variations, Op.33 (1876)
Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 (1885)


From where does Andris Nelsons get his energy? He’s currently conducting Richard Strauss’s searing psycho-drama, Elektra, at the Royal Opera House, which Jim Pritchard has just reviewed for Seen and Heard. That hugely demanding commitment hasn’t stopped him from coming up to Birmingham to rehearse and conduct two CBSO programmes. The first of these, just a few days ago, included Le Sacre du Printemps and was reviewed by my colleague, Christopher Thomas. Now, just a few days later – and with the small matter of an Elektra performance in between – he was back in Symphony Hall for a Tchaikovsky programme. This was no run-of-the-mill Tchaikovsky concert for the main work on offer was the rarely heard – shamefully so, in my opinion – Manfred Symphony. Nelsons and his orchestra have already recorded the last three numbered Tchaikovsky symphonies for Orfeo but, unaccountably, I’ve missed these discs so I was very keen to hear what they’d make of Manfred.

The programme was shrewdly chosen with the lightly scored Rococo Variations neatly separating the two works that require much larger forces: the piece acted as a kind of sorbet. Marche Slave is not exactly top-drawer Tchaikovsky but it made a good opener to this programme. Nelsons and his orchestra gave it a stirring, colourful performance,  the conductor clearly relishing the score and encouraging the CBSO to deliver it with gusto. The Rococo Variations were composed in the same year as the march but this concertante work could not be in greater contrast. We heard it in the arrangement by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, for whom the work was written. Tchaikovsky disapproved of the fairly sweeping changes that Fitzenhagen made to the score but even so most soloists use the Fitzenhagen version.

Daniel Müller-Schott was a marvellous soloist. He plays a cello made in Venice in 1727 and the instrument has a wonderful, burnished tone. I particularly relished his rich, sustained singing tone in the lyrical variations such as the andante sostenuto Third or the eloquent Sixth, which he played with great poetic feeling. However, he was just as convincing in in the passages that called for nimble virtuosity, not least the helter-skelter Seventh variation; that’s marked Allegro vivo and he and Nelsons certainly took notice of the ‘vivo’ instruction. It was noticeable how much attention to detail Andris Nelsons paid in directing an alert and sparkling accompaniment from the CBSO. This was a hugely enjoyable account of a delightful work. As an encore Müller-Schott gave an ardent performance of the opening Declamato movement from Britten’s Second Cello Suite, Op. 80.

In some ways I can understand the neglect of the Manfred Symphony. It’s the longest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies – this performance lasted nearly an hour. Also it requires a very large orchestra, including two harps, triple woodwind, a veritable battery of percussion (five players plus timpani) and a harmonium or organ – happily, the latter option was taken here. In addition it’s formidably difficult to play. Nonetheless, and even though its formal structure may not be ideally taut, it’s a score that was written when the composer was at the height of its powers – it comes between the Fourth Symphony (1877) and the Fifth (1888) – and it contains a great deal of powerful, imaginative and colourful music. Yet even so it was neglected for years – several conductors omitted it from ‘complete’ recorded symphony cycles – and even today it doesn’t crop up too often on concert programmes. This was only the second live performance I’ve been able to attend in some forty years but, my goodness, this was a performance that showed just why the work should not be overlooked.

The scenario, after Byron’s dramatic poem, was suggested to Tchaikovsky by Balakirev. Apparently he was unenthusiastic about the idea at first but a reading of the poem fired his imagination. The first movement depicts the desolate Manfred wandering in the Alps. Nelsons set his stall out from the outset: this was to be a vivid, dramatic reading – and quite right too. So the introduction, in which we first hear Manfred’s theme, was lugubrious and dark, the orchestral tone deliberately heavy. The ensuing moderato music was exciting. However, there’s far more to Manfred than doom and gloom: Tchaikovsky penned some wonderful lyrical music to represent Astarte, Manfred’s dead sister, and the first appearance of the music associated with her memory was exquisitely delivered by the CBSO’s muted strings. In fact this performance of the first movement was an ideal mix of passion and finesse. Nelsons made a deliberately long –and very effective – pause before launching into the searingly dramatic coda in which Manfred’s theme is poured out by massed strings over syncopated horn figures. The power that Nelsons brought to this passage was staggering and epitomised the dramatic thrust of his reading.

The second movement includes a good deal of delicate, highly original scoring, all of which was well pointed by the CBSO. Later, effectively acting as the trio section, comes a lovely theme, first heard on the first violins accompanied by the harps. This is a melody that would grace any of Tchaikovsky’s great ballets and it was winningly played – and lovingly phrased by Nelsons. There’s a subsequent appearance of the Manfred theme which gives the violas a moment in the sun – the CBSO violas took full advantage. At the end leader Laurence Jackson and his fellow first violins allowed the music seemingly to vanish into thin air.  Much of the third movement features beguiling pastoral music for which the tone was set right at the start by Gareth Hulse’s delightful oboe solo. In these pastoral stretches we heard fresh, cultivated paying. There are forceful, passionate outbursts too and hereabouts Nelsons was in full cry, urging his players on and getting an ardent response.

The finale is huge and needs a no-holds-barred performance, which is exactly what it received. For much of the movement’s course we are in a subterranean bandits’ lair where an orgy is in progress, giving Tchaikovsky the opportunity for lashings of potent, exciting music. Nelsons launched the movement at full tilt and from then on the tension and excitement rarely let up in what was a gripping reading, full of swagger and bravado. This is probably the most challenging music in the symphony to which the CBSO responded with edge-of-the-seat playing. It was an electrifying performance. Towards the end, as Manfred’s death and requiem is portrayed, Tchaikovsky throws in an organ for good measure and here we had the resources of the Symphony Hall organ to add a tremendous sonority to the proceedings.

The symphony is to be added in due course to the Tchaikovsky cycle that Nelsons and the CBSO have been undertaking on CD for the Orfeo label. To judge by the vast array of microphones in evidence – far more than the BBC broadcast would have required – I presume that the CD will be a live recording. It should be a fine addition to the cycle.

Currently there is uncertainty over Andris Nelsons’ future with the CBSO. His contract with them runs to the end of next season but, of course, from next season he will be the Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he’s a ‘hot property’ in demand at orchestras and opera houses all over the world. It would be demanding to lead two orchestras, one on each side of the Atlantic, but it’s far from unprecedented and, as his current schedule in London and Birmingham shows, Nelsons is far from short of energy. It’s always been evident that there’s a real synergy between Nelsons and the CBSO and this Tchaikovsky concert showed that in spades. All the CBSO’s supporters will surely be hoping that a way will be found for him to extend his stay in Birmingham. Offhand, I can’t think of anyone better to lead the orchestra up to its centenary in 2020 than this inspirational conductor.

This excellent concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard for the next week by clicking here.

John Quinn


Details of all the concerts in the CBSO 2013/14 season are available on the orchestra’s website