Nelsons Demonstrates his Affection for Brahms with Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 21.2.2014 (PCG)

Academic Festival Overture
Violin Concerto
Brahms – Symphony No 2

Scheduling a concert in St David’s Hall while Wales is playing (and beating) France at a rugby international in the Millennium Stadium a couple of hundred yards away was always going to cause problems with traffic in the centre of the city. It took me three times as long as usual to get to the venue, arriving with barely a couple of minutes to spare; and judging by the size of the audience for this concert (less than half full) many potential listeners had obviously decided that the effort was not worthwhile. Either that, or they simply were not attracted by the programme, an old-fashioned combination of overture, concerto and symphony – or by the fact that all the music was by the same composer, which created a lack of variety in the works on offer.

 Mind you, it was clear that Andris Nelsons clearly loves the music of Brahms. This was apparent from the very beginning of the Academic Festival Overture, where he adopted a very free sense of rubato, with subtle changes of pace to accommodate the varying moods of the music. But at times there was an unfortunate sense of the notes running out of steam, with persistent slowing down at the ends of phrases and sections. The violins were all bunched in the modern manner on the left of the stage, which robbed Brahms of his use of stereophonic effects between the two sections; and despite this, the upper strings still lacked the sense of power to enable them to ride above the wind and brass chords that accompanied them.

In the Violin Concerto Christian Tetzlaff also demonstrated his love of Brahms, with much subtle and beautiful shading of the solo part. But again this sometimes came at the cost of a loss of projection, especially during the first movement, taken very slowly and with an affection that sometimes robbed the music of forward momentum; the movement, already long, seemed to go on for ever even though he played the Joachim cadenza with plenty of light and shade. But in the central Adagio the interplay between soloist and wind soloists was admirably judged, and the finale with its gypsy overtones sparkled in exactly the way one would wish.

If only that sense of sparkle could have been extended to the Second Symphony after the interval. But here Nelsons’s affection for the music was conveyed principally through his employment of slow tempi.  Adagio non troppo, wrote Brahms at the head of the slow movement, but Nelsons seemed to have simply overlooked the word non. And the already slow speeds were compounded by his tendency to decelerate further at every possible opportunity, sometimes when Brahms had asked for più tranquillo and sometimes when he had not. The central section of the slow movement, marked grazioso, simply lumbered at this tempo with no sense of grace. Conversely in the faster passages Nelsons often allowed the orchestra to gather acceleration, with exciting results – the audience cheered the end of the finale ecstatically – but the steadier sense of accumulating tension was missing. At the end one was left with the feeling that Beecham might have been right when he declined to perform Delius’s In a summer garden on a wet morning, substituting instead Brahms’s Second Symphony as a work suited to all weathers.

Nelsons obtained excellent performances from his responsive and alert orchestral players, although apart from the lack of string weight one also noticed an occasional tendency for the woodwind to be swamped by the brass in the St David’s Hall acoustic; and the triangle in the Academic Festival Overture was very prominent indeed. And Nelsons should seek to curb his athletic tendencies on the podium, too; a silent beat near the start of the finale of the symphony was filled in by a very prominent and unwritten percussion stroke as the conductor stamped his foot for emphasis.

Paul Corfield Godfrey