Superb Strauss and Prokofiev from Nelsons and the CBSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Prokofiev, Erin Wall (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 15.1.2014 (JQ)

Strauss: Don Juan
Four Last Songs 

Prokofiev:Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
Morning Dance
Montagues and Capulets
Juliet as a Young Girl
Scene (the Street Awakens) Dance
Romeo and Juliet (Balcony Scene)
Minuet (the Arrival of the Guests)
Dawn: Romeo and Juliet’s Parting
Death of Tybalt


For his second series of Birmingham concerts with the CBSO in 2014 Andris Nelsons chose a really appetising programme.

He’s currently engaged in recording all the tone poems of Richard Strauss with the orchestra. They’ve not yet issued a recording of Don Juan though to judge by this evening’s performance it will be worth waiting for. We were reminded in the programme that this was the first piece in which Nelsons conducted the CBSO publicly, back in November 2007. Furthermore, he conducted it during a private concert two months earlier which led to him being offered the role of principal conductor. If those performances were on a par with this latest one it’s easy to understand why Nelsons made such an impression in this score six years ago.

Tonight’s performance opened with great panache, the music thrusting, urgent and colourful. The first love scene was expansive and ripe, expressively moulded by Nelsons. During the quicker music, which is, effectively, the development section of the piece, Nelsons got the orchestra to play with dash and brilliance – though they seemed to need little encouragement; the players were fully engaged in this interpretation. A lovely oboe solo from Steven Hudson was a highlight of the second love section; Nelsons shaped this whole section with almost extravagant attention to detail. The music sounded properly opulent and heroic towards the end but the quiet conclusion of the work was marvellously achieved. The performance as a whole was splendidly played, including many excellent solo contributions: the evening had got off to a tremendous start.

Incidentally, Nelsons had a rather unusual arrangement of the orchestra for this concert. The double basses – all eight of them – were ranged right at the back of the orchestra, behind the brass in a single row while the timpani and percussion players, who normally occupy that position, were in the basses’ usual place behind the cellos and to the conductor’s right. Whether this was an experiment, a new permanent arrangement or simply a layout for this particular programme I don’t know. I presume the intention was for the basses to project their sound out over the orchestra. I have to say it didn’t seem to me that this worked; in fact from my seat in the stalls I had the impression that the basses were no more audible – and perhaps less audible – than is usually the case.

The orchestra was joined by the Canadian soprano, Erin Wall for the Four Last Songs. I had previously heard Miss Wall in 2012 when she sang in the unforgettable performance of War Requiem that Nelsons conducted in Coventry Cathedral (review). On that occasion I felt I should suspend judgement on her singing because she was positioned quite far back on the platform and had to project over a very large orchestra into a tricky acoustic. Here, rightly, she was accorded prominence at the front of the platform. It was shrewd planning by Nelsons to juxtapose Don Juan, an early work full of confidence and swagger, with this late, autumnal score. The orchestra that Strauss uses in these songs is somewhat smaller than the forces required for Don Juan – though the work is still quite fully scored – but here he uses his orchestral palette with greater restraint and subtlety. I admired very much the care with which Nelsons conducted these songs. He was visibly alive to every nuance in the score and accompanied Miss Wall with great discretion, ensuring that Strauss’s glorious orchestral timbres were given their full due without ever swamping the solo voice.

This was a most impressive performance by Erin Wall. In Frühling she offered ardent singing, her long phrases soaring over the mellow orchestral sound. Here, as elsewhere, it was perfectly possible to follow the words she was singing without recourse to the texts printed in the programme; that’s no mean achievement for a high voice faced with tessitura that is often demanding and a vocal line that can be florid. Singing September Miss Wall span a lovely line, her tone rich but not overdone. I appreciated especially the wonderful half-tone with which she delivered the last phrases of the song before Elspeth Dutch’s golden-toned horn solo took the music on seamlessly to its mellow close.  Beim Schlafengehen benefitted from radiant playing by Laurence Jackson in the glorious violin solo. When Miss Wall resumed singing after this solo the moving words ‘Und die Seele unbewacht/Will in freien Flügen Schweben’ soared memorably and ecstatically. Some conductors play the opening of Im Abendrot quite urgently, pushing the music forward. I can understand why but I prefer to hear the music taken expansively – yet not indulgently – and that is just how Andris Nelsons took it. You could see him visibly feeling each phrase the orchestra played. Erin Wall sang with great expression, phrasing generously. For much of the time her singing was soft and rapt yet such was the dynamic control exerted by Nelsons and his players that every note she sang was completely audible. The long orchestral postlude glowed beautifully, bringing to a deeply satisfying conclusion a moving performance of this song which clearly transfixed the audience. I hope very much that Andris Nelsons will include the Four Last Songs in his series of Strauss recordings with the CBSO; if he does I hope he will invite Erin Wall to be his soloist.

Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, completed in 1935, is one of his finest achievements and one of the great ballet scores of the twentieth century. It’s also a proud pinnacle in the lineage of full-length Russian ballets. He extracted music from it to form no less than three orchestral suites, though the ‘plums’ are in the first two of these, which perhaps explains why the Third Suite Op. 101 is less frequently played or recorded. From the suites Andris Nelsons compiled his own selection, mostly from Suites 1 and 2 though Morning Dance, with which he began, is part of the Third Suite. He didn’t attempt to place the pieces in narrative order but, then, Prokofiev himself took some ‘narrative liberties’ in compiling his suites: for instance the piece entitled Montagues and Capulets in Suite No 2 is, in fact, a conflation of two numbers from the ballet, The Prince gives his Order and Knight’s Dance and The Death of Tybalt (Suite 1) similarly brings together successfully music from separate numbers in the full score.  We were told in the programme that in Nelsons’ selection ‘concerns of contrast, balance and cumulative pressure take precedence over narrative chronology’. As a concert hall experience this selection, which lasted some 42 minutes, worked very well, I thought.

It mattered little that there was no narrative thread since Nelsons’ dramatic flair made each piece exciting and convincing. He was evidently completely at home in this music and the orchestra responded to his direction eagerly. Prokofiev’s colourful, highly individual scoring was seized upon and relished by the players, especially the more piquant aspects, and there were innumerable excellent solo cameos. It’s invidious to single out individuals when the whole orchestra was on such glittering form but how often does the tuba player get so many moments in the sun? Prokofiev demands a lot from his tuba player in this score: there are several instances where the player is required to contribute a quiet but telling bass line in a passage of soft music where, conventionally, one would not expect to hear a tuba – often it’s the only brass instrument involved in such passages. Exemplary control is required from the tuba player on these occasions and Graham Sibley played with distinction, fully deserving his solo bow at the end.

I relished every number in this selection. The soaring lyricism and youthful ardour of the Balcony Scene was beautifully delivered.  The contrasting sections of Montagues and Capulets were no less satisfying: on one hand there was the weighty tread of the material from the Knights Dance in the full score and, a few moments later, the delicate pages derived from the same material featuring a beguiling flute, silken strings and the ‘sugar plum’ celeste. I loved the lithe playing and also the lissom grace that was brought to Juliet as a Young Girl while at the other end of the scale the fight music in the Death of Tybalt was vivid and desperate while the Capulets’ mourning over the dead Tybalt was hugely powerful and menacing, the orchestra digging deep to bring the performance – and the evening – to a shattering conclusion.

This was the first concert I’ve attended this year: 2014 could scarcely have got off to a more thrilling start with the CBSO on top form and galvanised by their charismatic conductor. Happily, we will have many more opportunities to hear the team in action in the remainder of this season and in 2014/15 before Nelsons departs for Boston where I’m sure his arrival full- time is eagerly awaited.


John Quinn