Birmingham Treasures the Moment with Nelsons and Mozart

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and CBSO Chorus / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.6.2014 (GR).

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550
isero! O sogno – Aura che intorno spin, K431
Per questa bella mano, K612
Mass in C Minor, K427

Malin Christensson (Soprano I); Christine Rice (Soprano II); Ben Johnson (Tenor); Vuyani Mlinde (Bass);  John Tattersdill (Double Bass)

With the search for a CBSO Music Director to succeed Andris Nelsons seemingly no nearer to any public announcement, the general feeling among regulars at the Symphony Hall Birmingham must surely be to treasure what is left of his seven year tenure. And the CBSO programme for the 2014/15 season previewed on this site  promises more exciting performances from this charismatic conductor bound for Boston next year. Nearing the end of this penultimate year, Nelsons was again in fine fettle on June 26th. With some concerts for Nelsons scheduled in Boston during the next twelve months, music lovers in Massachusetts have something to look forward to.

The concert opened with Mozart 40, the first movement of which (as far as I know) is the only symphonic piece from the great man to grace the pop charts; I fondly remember the Waldo de los Rios version from the 1970s. But the opening bars of the Allegro molto instantly demonstrated that this would be a strictly classical rendition. Nelson’s hands reflected the relaxed and agitated ideas of the first movement, one minute floating like a butterfly, the next stinging like a bee, directives to which the sweeping strings, led by the dependable Laurence Jackson, flawlessly responded. The stuttering of the excellent woodwinds did much to set the tone of a restless Andante second movement. There was breeziness in Nelsons’ Menuetto: allegro; the linked Trio, based upon a Ländler tune, highlighted the horns of Mark Phillips and Martin Wright. The orchestral conversations that abounded during the fabulous Allegro assai finale generated much pace; enveloped with jauntiness, it was all typically Mozartian and a consummate CBSO performance.

The tenor concert aria Misero! O sogno was sung by Ben Johnson, winner of the Audience Prize at the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World. The Italian verse comes from Pietro Metastasio (the source for many an opera libretto) and portrays the situation that befalls the standard hero of a ‘rescue opera’. Indeed in his Mozart biography Einstein likens it to ‘the expression of a Florestan or a Manrico, hovering between terror at his plight and gentle thoughts of his beloved and ending with an explosive outburst at his fate’. Johnson only achieved this in part, seemingly unable to change the colour of his tone from the abitato dall’ombre (place of shadows) to the implication of tenderness that the section beginning Aura che intorno spin (breeze blowing around me) demands. And the impassioned self-examination E dóvro qui morir (So must I die here?) and the acquiescent Non trovo pietà (I find no pity) required more Italianate timbre to the voice.

The humour of Mozart cropped up again in Per questa bella mano, an unusual combination for bass voice, solo double bass and orchestra – the only time Mozart composed for the largest member of the string section and at K612 he left it rather late. But he had his reasons! By making the instrumental obbligato part extremely difficult, Mozart (according to one source) supposedly intended to humiliate his orchestra’s double bass player for having shown an interest in his wife Constanze; a more plausible reason for its composition was simply for its inclusion in a little known comic opera of 1791. CBSO section leader John Tattersdill, who has been with them since 1973, was never going to be embarrassed: his leaps and double-stopping were more than equal to the task. Even the centre platform grouping of a male vocalist, a conductor and a double bass player struck me as somewhat comical. The low register affirmation of love from an effortless Vuyani Mlinde was deliberate in tone yet resounding in projection; together with the emphasised movements of the virtuosic Tattersdill up and down his instrument’s long neck, the combination exuded parody.

The Mass in C Minor, K427, occupied the second half, making up a well-rounded programme of above average length by today’s standards. Composed in celebration of his marriage to Constanze, this cantata-like mass was never completed by Mozart, possibly, as Sadie has suggested, because their union was less than perfect. Although Einstein called it a ‘noble torso’ it does often leave me frustrated, and this was my sensation on this occasion. In fact there was a double frustration since unfortunately Sarah-Jane Brandon, a favourite of mine and programmed to sing Soprano I, had had to withdraw, being replaced by Malin Christensson. Christensen, who had contributed well as one of Auntie’s nieces in the magnificent Peter Grimes here last September, has an impressive cv, but this I find is not always the complete picture. Of delicate frame and voice, her gorgeous top added much to the supplications of the Kyrie, but the Credo’s Et incarnatus est, one the most beautiful sections of the piece, was disappointing: erratic jumps and clipped endings resulted in a delivery that failed to match the stunning accompaniment of the woodwind section, with Marie-Christine Zupancic outstanding as always. Christine Rice brought her considerable experience and quality to Laudamus te, with a dramatic and colourful rendition, even tone and nailing the coloratura. Rice also stood out against both Christensson and Johnson in the Handelian trio Quoniam tu solus, a number that I thought could have done with a bit more punch. This emphasised the imbalance of the work as a whole. However all the imperfections fell into insignificance when weighed against the masses of the full turnout of the CBSO Chorus, well rehearsed as ever by their leader Simon Halsey; they were undoubtedly the stars of the evening. Their introductions to the Gloria in excelsis Deo and Jesu Christe shattered the rafters of the Symphony Hall. The sheer grandeur of the four-parter Qui tollis peccata mundi captured its plaintive structure absolutely. It was the closing Benedictus that produced that frustrated feeling, an indifferent quartet performance plus an all too short exit from the chorus.

Geoff Read


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