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Prom 16 – Wagner, Beethoven, and Dvořák: Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.7.2010 (MB)


Wagner – Overture: Rienzi

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.19

Dvořák – Symphony no.9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’, Op.95, B.178


To my shame, it is many years since the last time I heard the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; indeed, I think it was probably under Simon Rattle. On the basis of this concert, I shall hasten to do so again, since the orchestra sounds finer still if anything, certainly more continental, under its (relatively) new Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I shall also hasten to hear Nelsons wherever he may be conducting. If only I had been able to go to Bayreuth this year to hear his Lohengrin, with Jonas Kaufmann no less. Still, there was a taste of Wagner in the Overture to Rienzi. Nelsons dared – and won – a magnificently slow opening, the orchestra sounding gorgeous, the nobility of the Prayer theme fully and quite naturally brought out. There was at this stage an almost Klemperer-like deliberateness that truly paid off – which can only be the case if accompanied, as here, by profound musical understanding of rhythmic and harmonic progression. Then came the contrast of excitement: the external world opposed to Rienzi’s internal conflict. The CBSO’s brass choir proved it an equal to pretty much any other. Finally, enhanced Meyerbeer – just as it should be.

Though Beethoven was already Wagner’s greatest musical hero at this stage in his career, one would not necessarily have guessed it from Rienzi. The contrast with Beethoven’s ‘second’ piano concerto was therefore starker than it might have been with later Wagner. Paul Lewis, who has recently recorded all five concertos, joined Nelsons and the CBSO for a fine performance of an oft-slighted work, the success of which was at least as much to be attributed to conductor as pianist. For the opening bars alerted one to an uncommon Beethovenian talent too – and this is perhaps an even rarer thing. There was a true sense of life communicated: the music articulated, but never fussy, and Mozartian colours, especially darker hues, beautifully painted. (I thought above all of the E-flat concerto, KV 482.) These virtues were echoed, responded to, when the pianist entered, suggesting something of his great mentor, Alfred Brendel. There were occasions when I wished that Lewis would let himself go a little more, but there could be no gainsaying his command of the score. A rare (minor) cavil was a certain brusqueness to some sections of the development, which did not quite convince. Lewis employed an unusual degree of ornamentation in the recapitulation, but it worked. My only other real criticism was a plodding start to the cadenza. (Whatever Daniel Barenboim’s occasional shortcomings at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year, he could not be accused of that.) By the time of its climax, this was no longer the case, however. Thereafter I do not think I have a single reservation. From the outset of the Adagio, Nelsons showed command of that long line Beethovenian line, which defeats so many; the maturity of Lewis’s contribution was equally striking. Nelsons continued to emphasise the darker side of Beethoven’s Mozartian inheritance. I should be eager to hear him in Mozart himself – and I cannot remember the last time I thought that of anyone. There was a ravishing oboe solo (Rainer Gibbons), whilst the final bars exuded ineffable magic, verging at least upon greatness (coughing notwithstanding). The rondo sounded just as a rondo should: fun, lively, gently insistent, never driven too hard. Nelsons’s command of Beethoven’s rhythms was notable, once again matched by Lewis. A distinguished performance indeed: I cannot help but wish that Lewis had recorded the Beethoven concertos with Nelsons instead.

Coughing again marred the opening bars of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, though the intrusion of at least four mobile telephone calls – three to the same person! – was greater still. The beauty of the CBSO’s woodwind section could not be entirely obliterated, however. Nelsons proceeded to attack the Allegro molto with great urgency, yet still more spellbinding was the stillness as the flute announced the movement’s second group. True defiance, terror even, characterised its closing pages. And – a sign of charisma this! – keeping his hands in the air miraculously forestalled gloomily expected minority applause, setting a precedent thereafter adhered to. That solo, or rather those solos, were beautifully taken in the slow movement, Alan Garner drawing on seemingly endless reserves of breath. Nelsons’s tempo seemed so right that one only really noticed it in retrospect. The combination of woodwind soloists and double bass pizzicato in the movement’s middle section was simply ravishing, as were the violins when they took over the theme. Once again, I thought this might have been a great continental orchestra. Perhaps the most delicate pianissimo playing I have heard in the Royal Albert Hall was blighted by yet another telephone call. (Can nothing be done about these miscreants?) The scherzo married Beethovenian muscularity to delightful local colour and lilt: Dvořák has nothing to fear from comparisons with Smetana, even in this respect, and certainly not with Nelsons and the CBSO on his case. Always the long line again – marking out Nelsons as so much more the real thing than many of his touted contemporaries. The opening bars of the finale sent shivers down the spine, thanks to the CBSO brass. Even during more tender moments – an exquisite oboe solo, for instance – Nelsons maintained and increased the underlying tension to the movement. If I am to be ultra-critical, there were perhaps occasions on which he drove a little hard, but truly I am straining to find anything ambivalent, let alone negative, to say. More importantly, I heard orchestral detail that I cannot recall previously having heard – and without any of the point-scoring perversity one associates with conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The orchestral unisons just before the close gave Bruckner a run for his money. This was a wonderful performance indeed.

Mark Berry

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