CBSO on Top Form in Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Richard Strauss: Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchrestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 19.6.2014 (RD)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, op. 73
Strauss: Symphonia domestica, op. 53

Strauss was a domestic animal. You only have to look at the photographs of him, his wife Pauline (a superb Wagnerian soprano in her own right) and their son Franz (born in 1897, the same year as Korngold) to see there were sitting and dining rooms and firesides in the Strauss home as well as a study, even if he didn’t have to wash the dishes.

The fact that their 14  romance (seven of them married) and professional relationship was almost on the rocks by 1901 – but survived – adds piquancy to the composition of the Symphonia domestica, op. 53, in 1903. His symphonic poems, starting with the wonderful fantasy Aus Italien (heard at Symphony Hall quite recently), and including Ein Heldenleben were by now all written.

Yet the new work is as much a symphonic poem as any. A joyous medley of eager homecoming, family cuddles, teatime, baby’s (buba’s) bedtime lullaby, domestic tiffs – and bedroom ardour, all of it on a Berliozian (Symphonie Fantastique) scale, it proved just the right kind of work for Andris Nelsons and the CBSO to revel and romp in.

But the great joy is that Nelsons – who tended rather to go to town fortissimo on Tchaikovsky, say, or Rachmaninov, in his earliest days – seems to have grown with his Birmingham job. Watching him conducting Strauss’s Rosenkavalier the other day one was amazed at the gorgeous relaxation and ease with which he now approaches these monster scores.

But what matters is that Nelsons takes CBSO leader Laurence Jackson, and through him the entire band, with him. He doesn’t schmooze with the orchestra the way Rattle did; he hasn’t the sheer elegance of, or same kind of nous as, Oramo. But he manages to bring, and marry, the best of both. No self-focused bravado. No sartorial elegance (his clumsy attire is part, albeit a largely irrelevant part, of his charm). And the amazing, unusual baton technique, a product – of fellow-Latvian guru Mariss Jansons? Of St. Petersburg? Or of Nelsons’ own sheer ingenuity? No wonder Boston went on the prowl for him.

It showed in both works, a Beethoven Emperor in which – given Paul Lewis as soloist – Nelsons didn’t quite hold back as some might, or defer as he would surely do to a Brendel or Barenboim. It was a marriage of equals. And that’s just as well, for that’s what the work is, really. One easily forgets that after that first flurry the soloist shuts up for several minutes: it’s the orchestra – fabulous woodwind here as in the Strauss – that makes the running. It was a balanced showing.

You have to take Lewis’s dexterity almost for granted (we know much of even Beethoven’s Emperor solo part is decoration, though of course not all): the work, like the contract, require that he’s got all the notes taped. And he had, wonderfully well. Lewis isn’t a platform charmer, nor with all that concentration perhaps should he be. So to see him gently open up into a smile at the close was – softening.

But the domestica you don’t exactly encounter every day. This was big time fun, all the better for being unusual. Andris likes the Symphony Hall echo chamber doors open – Sakari, a chamber player par excellence, didn’t, Rattle mixed it. Yet this was no big boom Strauss, which that might engender. It was subtle, poised, clever, articulate, intelligent. Would it stand up to the great recordings – Ormandy, Mitropoulos, Maazel, Reiner? More like the last (and best), perhaps; but Nelsons doesn’t bully the music now. He nurses it.

Structurally part of the excitement lies in the fugal writing, much of it extraordinary, which Strauss hoped would be a key part of the symphony. He delivered. Each fugue or fughetta or even baroque-derived canonic chatter adds a kind of cachet, a sense that this indeed is a symphonic work of real weight. The Slovak-Austrian Franz Schmidt copied the idea, which is why his symphonies, neglected by most outsided Slovakia except Franz Welser-Möst (on EMI) and Neeme Järvi (Chandos) – and earlier on Decca, Zubin Mehta –  are so worth reviving.

And the orchestra? I think the most extraordinary string event of the evening was in the Beethoven – that astonishing, quivering link in the CBSO violas (the excellent Christopher Yates and team) which keeps the ball in the air before the big recapitulation.

But how much there was in Strauss. The whispers of Glockenspiel that sound the hours (seven-seven) for little Franz’s overnight dormition; the fabulous lilt at the start (like Don Quixote) of cellos (under Eduardo Vassallo), then oboes (Rainer Gibbons and Emmet Byrne, particularly tremendous on this occasion with both oboe d’amore (Jennifer Galloway) and cor anglais (Jill Crowther).

Add Jackson’s fabulously expressive solos (they are Sakari standard); the exquisite descending Wiegenlied – which links, organically, with other sections; and a hard-worked E flat and  bass clarinet (Joanna Patton, Mark O’Brien) – more telling than the four saxophones, which got to my ears got slightly clouded till near the end. When the tuba (Graham Sibley) gets his own bow, you know there’s been, in Nelsons’ view, some pretty extraordinary chemistry. He should know. He generates it.

Roderic Dunnett

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