United Kingdom Ešenvalds, Mahler. Michaela Schuster (mezzo-soprano); CBSO Children’s Chorus; CBSO Youth Chorus; CBSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 18.6.2015 (JQ)
Ēriks Ešenvalds – Lakes Awake at Dawn
Mahler – Symphony No 3 in D minor
This concert had been long anticipated by the CBSO and their audience – and anticipated with a mixture of excitement and sadness. The sadness, of course, was occasioned by the realisation that after seven years this was to be Andris Nelsons’ last Birmingham concert as the orchestra’s Music Director. But there was excitement too at the prospect of experiencing him in Mahler’s huge Third Symphony. My own expectations were high because in recent years I’ve heard him give a fine performance of the Ninth (review), a gripping account of the Sixth earlier this season (review), and an incandescent reading of the Second that will live long in the memory (review).
Before the Mahler, however, there was a new score to hear. I’ve heard quite a bit of the vocal music of the Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds, principally on CD and in particular on two discs devoted to his music (review ~ review). Impressed, I was keen to hear this new piece, jointly commissioned by the CBSO and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It received its UK première last night when Nelsons conducted this self-same programme in Symphony Hall. The world première was given last year in Boston. It was an uncommonly gracious gesture for Nelsons’ “old” and “new” orchestras to mark his transition from one to the other through the medium of a new piece. Pleasingly, the commission was offered to a composer who is a fellow Latvian and who, I believe, was a friend and fellow student of Nelsons in their conservatoire days.
Lakes Awake at Dawn is scored for SATB choir and a large orchestra and in this performance played for about 10 minutes. In it Ešenvalds sets some lines by the Latvian poet, Inge Ābele in an English translation to which the composer has appended some words of his own, also in English. The score plays continuously but has two clearly defined sections. In the first, the Ābele setting, the music is tense and powerful, depicting, to paraphrase the composer’s own description, “one’s emotional unrest, anxiety, and physical running away from danger at night in a forest.” Nelsons inspired his combined forces to project this music very strongly, creating a potent atmosphere. Ešenvalds’ own words depict the arrival at the consoling safety of a lake. Here the music becomes hymn-like. The writing for both choir and orchestra has great beauty and is initially tranquil though it gradually builds to a majestic climax, retreating thereafter to a soft consonant orchestral conclusion. The piece has great impact – especially in such a committed performance as this one – and its enthusiastic reception by the audience clearly delighted the composer, who was present.
There was no interval. However, quite an amount of platform rearrangement was required before the Mahler and the CBSO took advantage of this hiatus to pay tribute to their departing chief. Several members of the orchestra offered brief reflections on their experiences of working with Andris Nelsons. This segment of the evening was facilitated by Catherine Arlidge, a second violinist who has played under the last three CBSO Music Directors: Rattle, Oramo and Nelsons. With scarcely a reference to notes Ms Arlidge gave a fluent, assured and informal presentation that brought out the essence of the relationship between Nelsons and the orchestra: the key words were “spontaneity”, “trust” and “integrity”. In other circumstances such a session might have seemed self-indulgent but the personal bond between this conductor and his players is clearly very strong indeed so it seemed right and proper – and not at all contrived.
And so to the Mahler symphony. Mahler famously said: “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” There’s a case to be made that he came closest to achieving this in his Third Symphony. Indeed, the vast first movement alone, which here played for some 34 minutes, may not quite “contain everything” but comes close. From the start Nelsons generated terrific tension. The opening few minutes were vivid and dramatic – and so, too, was much of what followed. The dark, primeval stirrings were tellingly etched in by the bass instruments with no little power. Later the substantial, rhetorical trombone solos were delivered in an imposing fashion by Anthony Howe. The heart of the movement is a rumbustious, kaleidoscopic martial parade – ‘Pan marches in’, Mahler remarked – which was thrillingly delivered here. As the music unfolded it became ever more apparent that the CBSO were on top of their very considerable form for this performance. As the movement progressed it reminded me why I like Mahler’s music so much: there’s so much in it! Nelsons’ gripping realisation of this movement came to an end in a blaze of hedonistic exuberance.
The little Menuetto, which followed after a break of a couple of minutes, offered much-needed relaxation. Nelsons moulded the music affectionately – perhaps a little too affectionately at times – encouraging his players to phrase with delicacy and freedom. It was clear from the way Nelsons conducted that he loved not only the music but also the way his players delivered it. This was a warm, characterful reading though perhaps it was a little over-shaped at times. Nelsons ensured that the piquant Scherzando third movement was sharply defined, his attention to detail consistently evident. The posthorn interludes were beautifully nostalgic; the player, Jonathan Quirk, had been placed offstage and his distant contributions wafted magically into the hall through the open acoustic panels.
Michaela Schuster was a deeply committed soloist in the Nietzsche setting of the fourth movement. Nelson’s treatment of the music was daringly slow and if I had heard this performance on a CD I might have thought it overdone. But in the context of a live performance – of this live performance, especially – it worked. Here Nelsons followed the precedent of his predecessor, Simon Rattle, and some other conductors in getting the little oboe interjections played as upward portamenti. The effect is deliberately grotesque, as it is thought Mahler wanted, but even after hearing it in a good few performances it’s a gesture to which I can’t quite reconcile myself. The CBSO choirs made a telling contribution to the fifth movement. Their singing was fresh and appealing, especially that of the children whose innocent-toned singing was lively and incisive.
The concluding Adagio opened with wonderfully rapt playing from the CBSO strings; you sensed they were on their collective mettle, determined to deliver one last time for Nelsons – and they did. Nelsons paced the music broadly and generously but though the tempo was expansive there was always a sense that the music was moving forward with purpose: there was a goal in sight. Throughout this movement the orchestra were at the top of their game. Impressive dynamic contrasts were a telling feature of the reading. In the last few minutes there was a true sense that Nelsons was leading his forces to the summit; certainly he drew every last ounce of commitment from the orchestra. He surely knew that the last great D major chord would be followed by an immediate ovation but Nelsons held the moment, his arms aloft, so that no applause intruded until the music had reverberated around the hall and properly died away. Only then did he lower his arms.
This was an expansive reading of the symphony, which I timed at 105 minutes, including a two-minute break after the first movement. That’s quite long. However, one must allow for the fact that this performance was given on an emotionally-charged occasion. There were a few passages when I felt that he was drawing the music out just a little too lovingly but overall I found his reading compelling and convincing. And he had his players with him at every step of the way: the CBSO gave him their all – and a memorable send-off.
During a prolonged standing ovation Nelsons plunged into the ranks of the orchestra; it seemed as if he shook hands with or hugged most of the players on the platform. After several minutes he gave a disarming short farewell speech in which, typically, he stressed two themes: the CBSO family, including its audience, and a strong plea to the people of Birmingham to cherish their orchestra.
And so with this unforgettable performance the Nelsons era came to an end, though it’s not quite the end for he and the orchestra and the CBSO Chorus have one last outing together: Beethoven’s Ninth at the BBC Proms on 19 July. He will be back in Birmingham, I’m sure, as an honoured guest, but for now, with his successor still to be chosen, he leaves big shoes to fill.
The identical programme was performed on the previous evening, 17 June, and was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. For those able to access the BBC iPlayer the broadcast can be accessed here for 30 days from the date of transmission