Mixed Performances of Iconic Works by Berlioz and Dvořák

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz & Dvořák: Jian Wang (cello), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Nikolaj Znaider (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 29.4.15 (GR).

Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op 14
Antonin Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104


The CBSO’s programme on the evening of 29th April 2015 (repeated the following day for their highly successful afternoon series of concerts) was entitled Symphonie fantastique, choosing to ignore the Dvořák Cello Concerto from the main billing. Yet both works in their own way are arguably of equal iconic status – the Berlioz 1830 orchestral masterpiece that stretched the bounds of symphonic composition to new horizons, the Czech composer broadening the boundaries of the cello as a concerto instrument. With the reign of Andris Nelsons as Music Director of the CBSO sadly closing in a couple of months, Nikolaj Znaider took the podium at Symphony Hall. It often bothers me when the conductor’s profile begins with ‘One of the foremost violinists of today…’ so impressions of his baton deployment were under scrutiny.

Before conclusions, it was soloist Jian Wang in the spotlight for the Dvořák Cello Concerto; by any standards this was a dazzling exhibition. After the opening statement on clarinets and bassoons, the crescendo of Znaider was ferocious if perhaps a little uneven. As the first subject is tossed around in the allegro, the contribution from the lower strings seemed more pronounced than I have noticed before, but it was an interpretation that was decidedly pleasing to my ear. The horn delivered the gorgeous second subject and after some typical Dvořákian string gaiety, Wang forcefully entered, displaying his talents to the full: a velvet caress at the bottom end, a delicate touch on the ‘A’ string, a fluidity to the semiquavers and an aggression when required in the codas. I wondered what make his instrument was – the programme merely said it was on loan. His dynamic control and use of vibrato portrayed a formidable technique, and his ability to sit back, adjust his spectacles, and enter from a relaxed position at the precise moment, was uncanny. As Dvořák interweaved his two subjects in the central section, the CBSO players exuded a sense of utter jubilation, a mood confirmed by the return to the opening theme that closes the movement.

The cello again allows others to open the second movement, adagio, ma non troppo. This time it was a wonderful combination of Oliver Janes on clarinet and the bassoons who discharged one of Dvořák’s touchingly melancholic tunes, made all the more poignant by the Chinese virtuoso’s entry. The discussion between soloist and the woodwinds was animated; broken by a sudden outburst from the orchestra and amplified by the brass and percussion sections, it heralds the lied ‘Leave me alone’, inspired by the composer’s love for Josefina Cermakova. There was now an intensity to Jang’s playing that infused the auditorium, a line of melody that was remarkably painted. The interplay between Jang and Marie-Christine Zupancic on flute was another magical moment, as was the bird-like interjections of Rainer Gibbons on oboe. The finale, allegro moderato, contains a complex three-part rondo, begun enthusiastically by the soloist. But the main message of Jang and the CBSO was one of recapitulation, highlighting the glorious way Dvořák treats his native folk songs. The well-deserved appreciation for Jang brought a snippet of an encore from a Bach cello suite.

The movements of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique are divided into distinct headings as well as mood directives. The first is ‘Reveries – Passions’ and largo – allegro agitato ed appassionato assai. Znaider got the slow section off to a daydream of a start: the muted violins, woodwind and horns of the CBSO portraying a myriad of transitory ideas and creating a wistful playground. Indeed the introduction by the first violins under leader Laurence Jackson of the idée fixe firmly established a frittering sensation all round. The two harps of Daniel de Fry and Stephanie Beck set a delightful valse scene to begin ‘A Ball’, the next episode in the composer’s self-portrait, an imaginary dance in which the strings eagerly joined – but I thought the rallentando rather hurried. As the pace of the waltz increased allegro non troppo, the clarinet broke free of the ensemble, re-stating the idée fixe: not the most memorable of tunes, but one that perfectly describes Berlioz’s fixation on the actress Harriet Smithson. The cor anglais of Sarah Harper fashioned the pastoral adagio setting of ‘Scene in the Country’ as the artist’s dream continues. This replication for the alpine horn of the shepherd is answered by the oboe, arranged by Znaider to sound suitably remote and all very Beethoven. I thought the maestro also got the balance between Zupancic and the violins about right for their evocative melody that followed. The mini-storm sees the percussion section in action, the two bass drums on this occasion being placed side by side.

Depicting the angriness of a crowd assembling to witness an execution, the trombones and tubas dominate the allegretto non troppo of ‘The March to the Scaffold’. It put a bounce into the body movement of Znaider: the rhythm seemed to suit his upright Sergeant Major-like posture. Indeed ‘regimental’ characterised my impression of his conducting style, deliberate but with more room for individual flair. Danish-born Znaider certainly extracted a terrifying range of colour from the CBSO in the fourth movement, continuing the imaginative story of the French composer’s own fate having killed his heart’s desire. After one last memory of his beloved via the idée fixe, there was an ominous thud as the head hit the basket. Such visions became even more nightmarish in the larghetto – allegro finale of ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’. The variation in sound patterns were fantastic: the mocking laughter from the violins; the cackling of the woodwind; the realistic church bell ‘peal of death’ from high up in the Symphony Hall gallery: the sinister dies irae announced by the tubas of Graham Sibley and Martin Knowles; the disturbing strains of the violas playing sul ponticello; the dismembering of the beat to enhance the diabolical; the bone-jangling sound of the violins col legno. The closing C major was shattering.

It was a curate’s egg of a performance from Znaider, although the positive aspects did outnumber the ordinary.

Geoff Read