Wonderful Wagner in Birmingham but Andris Nelsons’ Elgar is not yet the Finished Article

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner and Elgar: Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 25.8.2014 (JQ)

Wagner – Parsifal
Good Friday Music
Amfortas! Die Wunde!
Nur eine Waffe taugt

Wagner – Lohengrin
Höchtes Vertrau’n hast du mir schon zu danken
In fernem Land (Grail Narration)

Elgar – Symphony No 2 in E flat, Op. Op 63.

Today was the last summer Bank Holiday in England and Wales, so it rained – of course. What a treat, then, to have the prospect of a concert by Andris Nelsons and the CBSO to look forward to during an otherwise dreary day. This concert was the prelude to a short tour of Austria and Switzerland during which they will play music by Beethoven and also the Elgar symphony before this self-same programme is given on 31 August as art of the Lucerne Festival. The concert was also the opportunity for the Birmingham public to bid a fond farewell to Robert Johnston, the CBSO’s harpist. Johnston retires at the end of this month after an exceptional 42 years’ service with the orchestra and this was his last Birmingham concert with them. Before the Elgar symphony was played Andris Nelsons made a charming speech and presented Johnston with a gift to sustained applause. A fuss was also made of Johnston in the programme book, including tributes from Nelsons and his two predecessors as CBSO Music Directors, Sakari Oramo and Sir Simon Rattle. The latter described Johnston as “one of Europe’s greatest harpists”. However, it seemed to me that the most telling tribute was the remark during Andris Nelson’s speech about the crucial importance of long service such as this in passing on the orchestra’s tradition, especially to new members – including conductors!

The CBSO had scored something of a coup in securing the services of Klaus Florian Vogt to sing in the first half. Since he offered music from both Parsifal and Lohengrin it was rather a case of ‘like father like son’. I was mildly surprised that the programme didn’t make it clear that Vogt is Bayreuth’s reigning Lohengrin. Andris Nelsons has conducted the opera at Bayreuth since 2010 and in every year except the first Vogt has been his Lohengrin. Looking back on Seen and Heard after this concert I see that my colleague Jim Pritchard was rather cool about Vogt’s assumption of the role in 2011 (review) – though not about the quality of his singing – though by the following year his reservations had melted away in the face of Vogt’s “incomparably sweet-sounding Lohengrin and the ease with which he projects such a fearsomely high-lying role is literally stunning. He never produces an ugly sound and his voice appears to have gained some volume.” (review) Jim has seen Vogt in the role every year since and has remained just as complimentary, singling out the delivery of ‘In fernem Land’ for special praise this year (review).

Vogt will sing Lohengrin for two more years at Bayreuth before taking the title role in a new production of Parsifal in 2018 and we got a foretaste of his Parsifal this evening. That was after Nelsons had led a spacious and lustrous account of the Good Friday music in which I was particularly impressed by the breadth of the CBSO’s phrasing and the sensitive way in which the quiet passages were played. Vogt joined them and immediately his big, ringing tone, effortlessly produced, was apparent in ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ His account of this solo was intense and often impassioned yet in achieving intensity he never sacrificed beauty of tone. His top notes rang thrillingly around Symphony Hall. The performance of ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’ was no less impressive and I especially relished the conviction with which he delivered the line ‘Den heil’gen Speer – ich bring’ ihn euch zurück’.

The music from Wagner’s earlier opera about Parsifal’s son found the Vogt/Nelsons partnership on very familiar territory. Vogt brought the right note of reproach to the start of ‘Höchtes Vertrau’n hast du mir schon zu danken’ but thereafter offered some ardent, singing in Lohengrin’s romantic address to Elsa. The last line of the solo was delivered with golden splendour of tone. Saving the best till last Vogt gave an account of the Grail Narration that was simply magnificent. Luminously accompanied by Nelsons and the orchestra, he delivered the opening in a rapt, hushed way that demanded technical control of the highest order. As the aria moved from the mystery of the Grail to Lohengrin’s proud revelation of his identity Vogt’s physical bearing and marvellous voice embodied the valour of the youthful knight. This was Wagner singing of the highest order; no wonder the audience were vociferous in their appreciation.

I have waited some time to hear Andris Nelsons conduct Elgar. He was scheduled to conduct the CBSO in The Dream of Gerontius in 2012 but, sadly, he was indisposed, though the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, Edward Gardner deputised in fine style (review). Tonight he gave what I believe was his first performance of the Second Symphony and there was much to admire though the interpretation is, at present, dangerously flawed in one important respect.

The symphony began propitiously with abundant energy – indeed, much of the performance was to be characterised by energy, often internal – yet, happily the pace was not forced. In the last few days I’ve been listening to Sir Georg Solti’s 1970s recording of this symphony in which a good deal of the music in the first and last movements was taken at an unduly urgent tempo. Here we had another non-British conductor coming fresh to the music but, unlike Solti, I felt that almost without exception Nelsons’ tempi for the fast music in this symphony were shrewdly chosen. During the opening pages of the first movement – and elsewhere – I had the impression that Nelsons’ expressive, flowing beat was well suited to imparting impetus and, at the same time, a good sense of line to Elgar’s music.

However, if you are sensing that amidst all these positive comments there is a “but” you are correct. After the opening paragraphs Elgar slows the momentum and we hear some more reflective passages. Here, I’m afraid, I thought Nelsons relaxed too much and while Elgar’s ideas were beautifully realised by the orchestra the pace became just too slack for comfort and both tension and momentum were imperilled. Mind you, even here there were positive elements: the darker side of the music was well brought out and when the swift music of the opening reasserted itself I’ve rarely been so conscious of light following darkness when listening at this point. Nelsons and his orchestra invested much of the music with appropriate opulence and consistent scrupulous attention to dynamics ensured that there was plenty of light and shade – as was the case throughout the performance. If only the slower music had been moved forward with more purpose this would have been a very fine account indeed of the movement.

The second movement was shaped with care and great feeling by Nelsons and the CBSO responded with wonderful playing that was both sensitive and, when required, burnished. The interpretation was marked by intensity and great concentration – it was noticeable that at the end Nelsons ‘held the moment’ for several seconds before allowing everyone to relax. The reading was very passionate at times but always the ardour, when it came, was appropriate. The reappearance, shortly before the conclusion, of the motif from the first movement associated with the ‘Spirit of Delight’ was movingly done. I thought this performance was highly persuasive. The third movement was packed full of brilliance and bravura. There was also considerable power when some material from the first movement reappears with increasing menace. The dazzling end, where Elgar’s imagination and skill as an orchestrator runs riot to a degree perhaps unparalleled elsewhere in his output, was brought off superbly.

The finale started promisingly, the opening theme rolling forward very nicely. However, soon Nelsons’ tendency to slow the pulse, experienced in the first movement, was in evidence again and this time to a much greater degree. For long stretches of the finale I felt he took the music much too broadly in an effort to impart expressiveness. That’s misguided for the expressiveness is all there in the music without the need to underline it. Despite the excellence of the CBSO’s playing the going became very heavy indeed at times. The magical last few pages, so reminiscent of the comparable passage in the Brahms Third Symphony, one of Elgar’s favourite works, were caringly shaped and raptly played but it was too late to redeem an account of the movement that I felt was misguided. After the music stopped Nelsons held the silence but for rather too long; respect for the music risked tipping over into contrivance.

The audience were loud in their appreciation so my reservations over the outer movements were probably not shared by others and I readily acknowledge that there was much to admire in the performance. However, Nelsons’ interpretation is, at this stage, a work in progress. I hope, nonetheless, that he will continue to play the symphony and to explore more of Elgar’s music: the flamboyant In the South would particularly suit him, I suspect.

John Quinn

4 thoughts on “Wonderful Wagner in Birmingham but Andris Nelsons’ Elgar is not yet the Finished Article”

  1. John,
    I do not claim to know this Elgar symphony well but I enjoyed the performance and felt, as always, that Andris Nelsons put so much into it and brought an energy and life to the work.
    I bow to your experience and think you give a fair account, maybe there is some refinement to come in the passages you mention.
    The Wagner excerpts were brilliant, with beautiful tone and line from Klaus Florian Vogt and orchestra. Andris Nelsons is on familiar ground with this music and it showed in the excellent performance!
    Best regards, Derek

    • Derek,

      You’re absolutely right to highlight how much Andris Nelsons put into the Elgar,not least in terms of energy and I hope that came through in my review because that was readily apparent throughout the evening. It’s always crystal clear how strongly the orchestra responds to his direction. As I’ve commented before, Boston’s gain is very much Birmingham’s loss. I hope he will do more Elgar though,and I’m especially intrigued by the imaginative pairing of the Shostakovich 11th symphony and some of Elgar’s less familiar Great War pieces that he’ll be conducting next February.

      Kind regards


  2. I thought this was a very fair account of the concert – my only slight disagreement is that I thought Nelsons’s tempi in the first movement worked perfectly in the context of this interpretation – with the result that the over-portentous and ponderous finale came as perhaps a bigger disappointment to you than to me. The only thing I’d add is that I thought the whole thing worked very well as a programme – having heard some Wagner and then listening to Elgar conducted by an experienced opera conductor, I realized for the first time how indebted both to Wagner and to operatic/dramatic pacing Elgar was. Quite agree that both Vogt and the orchestra were fantastic.

    • Nigel, thank you for your comments. I would agree that the slow tempi were less detrimental in the first movement than in the finale.

      You’re absolutely right about Wagner and Elgar working well in a programme – Elgar visited Bayreuth at least once, I believe. Last year I reviewed a concert at the Three Choirs Festival in which The Dream of Gerontius was preceded by the Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal. It was a really effective combination. Despite my reservations over Monday night’s performance I’m even more regretful now that we didn’t get the chance to hear Nelsons – with all his operatic experience – conduct Gerontius back in 2012.

      Kind regards



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