United Kingdom Richard Strauss and Brahms. Eduardo Vassallo (cello), Christopher Yates (viola), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Walter Weller (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 30.10.2014 (JQ)
Richard Strauss – Don Quixote. ‘Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character’, Op. 35
Brahms – Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68
This date had been inked in my diary for some time as an opportunity to experience the CBSO’s Music Director, Andris Nelsons, in some of his core repertoire. I have heard and admired several of his Richard Strauss performances, live and on CD, with the CBSO. He’s conducted quite a bit of Brahms with them and the Philharmonia in recent seasons but I’ve missed all those concerts so I was keen to experience his Brahms. Alas! On arriving at Symphony Hall I learned that he had withdrawn due to “unforeseen personal circumstances” and his place had been taken at short notice by Water Weller.
Mr Weller has had a long and distinguished career but, apart from spotting the reissue of a number of his recordings, I must confess I’ve not noticed his name much in recent years. He will be 75 next month and I was sad to see as he made his way slowly to the podium that he appears somewhat infirm nowadays. It’s not always easy to judge a concert when a conductor or soloist has stepped in at the last minute; for one thing, one doesn’t know how much rehearsal has been possible. However, all one can do is report as fairly as possible one’s impressions of what took place.
The CBSO helpfully print in their programmes their performing history of some of the works they play and it was evident from the information about Don Quixote that they’ve quite often performed the work using their principals in the solo roles rather than importing a star cellist. Bravo for that: it’s what Strauss intended. So this evening we had the CBSO’s principal cellist and violist centre stage; indeed, I noted that the last time the orchestra played the work – in 2008 – Eduardo Vassallo and Christopher Yates were the soloists, as they were tonight. Both impressed me. Yates was the principal, though not sole, voice of Sancho Panza. His is not as prominent a role as that of the Don but his contributions were characterful, not least in Variation III, the ‘Conversation between the knight and his squire’.
The cellist is much more to the fore, though often Strauss’s writing requires him to be more of a primus inter pares within the opulent orchestral textures. Vassallo played very well indeed. I especially admired his eloquent ruminations in the fifth variation, ‘The knight’s vigil’, where he displayed lovely tone and fine feeling. In the finale Strauss portrays the final regretful musings of his hero, followed by his death. Here Vassalo played the quintessential Straussian melody at the start most expressively and as the work drew to its close he managed the Don’s demise excellently.
If Vassallo and Yates garnered the main plaudits it should be said also that a good number of their CBSO colleagues grasped most effectively the opportunity for characterful solos and none more so than leader, Laurence Jackson. I don’t think the CBSO collectively were quite at their peak in this performance but the playing was nonetheless very good.
Unfortunately, the problem in this performance was the conducting of Walter Weller. With hindsight the Introduction gave a foretaste of what was to follow. The pace was too deliberate; clarity was obtained but sparkle was lacking. Too often in the work as a whole the speeds were just too cautious. So, in Variation II the raucous sheep were scattered at a too-stolid tempo. Later, for all the sonorous playing of the CBSO’s playing – terrific horns – the ‘Ride through the air’ remained earthbound. I hate to say it but there were times when Weller, who frequently conducted while sitting on a stool, seemed to be going through the motions. Don Quixote must be the very devil of a piece to pick up at short notice and I do wonder if, in the enforced absence of Nelsons, a programme change would have been justified. Some indication of the shape of the performance may be gleaned from the timing. By my watch Weller took 47 minutes over the score compared with an expected time of 40 minutes in the programme: I have several recordings in my collection and the longest plays for 43 minutes. Sad to say, the life in this performance came from the players rather than from the podium.
So it was with no great sense of anticipation that I approached the Brahms symphony after the interval. Initially, it seemed that my misgivings would be justified as Weller launched the first movement in a very spacious fashion indeed, timpani pounding. However, as the movement progressed it became clear that the interpretation had a rugged strength. This was not a lithe performance such as one might hear from a conductor such as Chailly. Instead it was, dare I say, old-school Brahms. The exposition repeat was not taken. There were times when I longed for Weller to move the music on more but on its own terms his way with the score was impressive and the CBSO responded with playing of conviction and fine sonority. Though the core speeds were more expansive than is the fashion among many conductors today Weller’s performance was undeniably purposeful. It may be significant that though the stool remained in place on the rostrum he used it far less frequently than he had done during the Strauss performance – and, unless I missed it, not at all during the first movement of the symphony.
The Andante sostenuto was broadly conceived but though the music was played in a spacious manner Weller kept it moving forward well. The CBSO offered excellent playing. The third movement flowed easily and naturally. My only disappointment was that I felt Weller slowed excessively at the very end. He began the finale attacca. The long introduction was dark and powerful. It was also quite deliberate – and very deliberate in the pizzicato string episodes. When we reached the main Allegro the famous big tune was nobly sung by the strings. Weller’s approach to the movement had strength and purpose; there was inner energy even if one has heard the music blaze more in other hands. I wasn’t surprised that the brass chorale near the end was taken very broadly indeed – this was in keeping with the interpretation as a whole – but the conclusion of the work was played powerfully.
I suspect that this Brahms performance, rather than the Strauss, showed us the real Walter Weller. At the end he was warmly applauded and I thought it was revealing that the orchestra too showed evident appreciation of their guest conductor.