Andris Nelsons’ Bids Farewell to the CBSO at the Proms

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  PROM 4: Woolrich, Beethoven Margaret Cookhorn (contra-bassoon); Lucy Crowe (sop); Gerhild Rimberger (mezzo); Pavel Černoch (tenor); Kostas Smoriginas (bass-bar); CBSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.7.2015 (CC)

Andris Nelsons conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2015. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Andris Nelsons conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2015.
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

BeethovenThe Creatures of Prometheus – Overture
WoolrichFalling Down (London première)
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125


Andris Nelsons has been Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 2008, and this Beethoven Ninth formed part of his farewell for pastures new – Boston and its Symphony Orchestra, to be precise. The programming was intriguing: two works by arguably the greatest master of them all framed an over-long, inconsequential London première.

The Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus is a slim piece, a mere five minutes. But there is something of the core of Beethoven there, concentrated into a perfectly proportioned morsel. Beautiful orchestral balance, pinpoint scampering strings and razor punch to tutti chords characterised Nelsons’ Beethoven; and promised much for the Ninth of the second half.

But first came the London première of John Woolrich’s Falling Down – a “capricho” for double bassoon and orchestra dating from 2009. The soloist, Margaret Cookhorn, is the dedicatee – she also gave the world première of the piece, which was a CBSO commission – and her way with the long, resonant lines exuded confidence. This could have been such an eye-opening piece, and the Stravinskian element to the opening in particular augured well from the pen of a composer whose music in this writer’s experience has so often been characterised by its greyness. Yet the length of the piece far outweighed its invention. Effects abounded, not least antiphonal timpani, and the way that the lower orchestral instruments, such as cor anglais, tuba and trombones, both supported and extended the soloist. The opening gestures move towards the top of the orchestra’s range, from which the piece descends. The designation “capricho” references Goya, which seems a step too grand for the slim musical material on offer. An oboe solo tends towards tenderness, and Woolrich’s way of projecting a jaunty, quasi-comedic element is all well and good. But the piece is eminently forgettable.

Post-interval, Beethoven’s Ninth – so early in the season! – was heard in an impressive, if not awe-inspiring, performance. There were so many things to enjoy – nay, wonder at: beautiful pianissimi; turbulent demisemiquavers from the strings in the first movement; a great line-up of soloists; and a simply stunning chorus, who sang from memory. The long lines of the slow movement were of faultless legato, and transitions carefully (some would say micro-) managed. But the brazen Urschrei of the opening of the finale was all too tame and civilised, and it was indeed this sense of containment that scuppered the feeling of experiencing a vast edifice of a masterpiece. One could hardly hold back from admiring the fast and light Scherzo, with hard-sticked timpani acted as gunshots. Of course, the contra-bassoon opening of the March in the finale took on added resonance after its starring role earlier in the evening. Yet magic was missed and there were was one frankly odd moment. Nelsons turned to the audience during the performance of the finale – as if he thought it was the last night and we should all join in. He seemed to point towards the ceiling, and perhaps was entreating his choral forces properly to fill the Albert Hall. Who knows? It was simply off-putting – although not as much as the audience applause at the close of the first movement.  Special mention should be made of Lucy Crowe’s radiant soprano contribution and of Pavel Černoch – substituting for Dmytro Popov – a superbly focused tenor.

If only the performance had been the sum of its parts, or even more than that, this would have been immensely satisfying. But Nelsons, so far at least, lacks the long-range view of the great interpreters.

Colin Clarke