United Kingdom Wagner, Stravinsky: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Kristine Opolais (soprano), Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 19.9.2013
Wagner: Tannhäuser – Overture
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Settling on a programme for the opening night of a new season is no easy feat, especially when it is to be conducted by a revered Musical Director who is shortly to cross the Atlantic to take up a new appointment in Boston.
Perhaps all the more reason then why the CBSOs’ new season commenced with a programme that clearly struck a very personal chord with both conductor and orchestra. As Nelsons commented in the programme,” This season we’re playing some of the music that’s most personal to me and lots of the pieces we are playing tell a life story”.
Self indulgent? Possibly, depending on your point of view, but what was undeniable in Symphony Hall was the fact that Nelsons’ personal choice of programme was also indelibly stamped with his own personality in what proved to be a fascinating evening of contrasts, gilded by Nelsons’ unstinting faith in his own interpretative insight.
The majestic strains of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture were prefaced by a gloriously phrased woodwind chorale in which scrupulous attention to the subtle rise and fall of the dynamics lent the playing a luminous quality that was to permeate every bar of the performance. With Nelsons at one moment resting one hand nonchalantly on the rail of the podium and at others, leaning into the violin section as if to accentuate every note of their cascading rhythmic figurations whilst physically hammering out the triplets in the trombones radiant statement of the pilgrims chorale with a clenched fist, Nelsons’ was a Tannhäuser that made full use of the lush acoustic of Symphony Hall and in doing so gloriously accentuated the grand romantic excesses of Wagner’s blazing paean to human sensuality.
In contrast, the Wesendonck Lieder that grew out of Wagner’s fascination with his muse and alleged lover Mathilde Wesendonck, possessed an air of restrained coolness that allowed Nelsons’ wife and fellow Latvian, soprano Kristine Opolais, to deliver the texts of Mathilde Wesendonck with a refreshing simplicity of phrase and line. The gentle innocence of the opening song The Angel, the subtle colouring of voice and string textures in Stand thou still! and the passionate but never cloying strains of the final song Dreams were beautifully realised in textures of crystalline clarity. But it was the despair and desolation of the central song Im Treibhaus (In the Conservatory), delivered with limpid, heartbreaking restraint that hinted at rather than drove home the sense of despair, that will live longest in the memory.
From a growling, rasping opening bassoon solo that put a uniquely individual slant on the Introduction, Nelsons and the CBSO delivered a Rite of Spring of primeval savagery, often accentuating the idiosyncrasies of Stravinsky’s orchestration (the bass clarinet leading into The Augurs of Spring was extraordinary) as were the baying low register horns that often punctuated the orchestral textures with startling, earthy effect.
Yet this was also a Rite that saw Nelsons take considerable risks with his tempi, sometimes driving the orchestra on at hair raising speed, as in The Ritual of Abduction where the CBSO’s splendid brass section displayed breathtaking detail and clarity, or in The Dance of the Earth that concluded Part One of the work in an orgiastic frenzy of menace and cumulative energy.
It was an energy that contrasted sharply with the introduction to Part Two, in which the ethereal transition into The Mystic Circles of the Young Girls carried a ghostly, otherworldly atmosphere with Nelsons’ inexorable cranking up of terror in the final Sacrificial Dance, unleashing itself on the audience with a blood curdling, unhinged aura of impending terror.
As the final searing shriek from the woodwind rang around Symphony Hall and put the seal on a Rite of masterful tension and graphic, at times apocalyptic, violence, it was difficult not to ponder the depth of the hole in the cultural life of Birmingham that Nelsons will leave upon his departure.
His penultimate season with the CBSO promises to be something very special indeed.