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Review: Beethoven Symphony Cycle, CBSO at Symphony Hall

Norman Stinchcombe finds a Beethoven performance at Symphony Hall to be full of gusto and a refreshing change from previous more low key shows

Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO at Bonn for Beethovenfest

Listening to four concerts in which the nine Beethoven symphonies were played in all their coruscating power and glory, it seemed as if the changes wrought by period performance practitioners - minimal string vibrato, pinched phrasing and breakneck speeds - had never happened.

Andris Nelsons prefers warmer string tone, a varied tonal palette, moulded legato lines and tempi which generally ignore Beethoven's highly controversial metronome markings.

After some of the low-fat, decaffeinated Beethoven performances I've heard at Symphony Hall in recent years, Nelsons' approach - high-cholesterol with a double espresso chaser - was a refreshing change.

He was supported to the hilt by every section of the CBSO, especially a revivified wind band: Rainer Gibbons' plaintive oboe in the Eroica's adagio; that symphony's trio illuminated by the horns, superbly led by guest principal Alec Frank-Gemmill; Marie-Christine Zupancic's trilling nightingale in the Pastoral, for example.

Nelsons used a large complement of strings anchored by six double basses (eight in the choral symphony) and Matthew Perry's alert timpani playing - what a vital role he had in this cycle.

The erroneously-labelled "small" symphonies - One, Two, Four and Eight - were given their rightful stature as great works.

The first symphony's ironically named minuet crackled with energy and the second's scherzo was a proper one-in-a-bar romp.

Nelsons often eased back for expressive purposes: the first symphony's andante was more cantabile than con moto but one was seduced by its charm and quiet intensity.

Nelsons added dolce to the second symphony's larghetto to wonderful effect, revealing it as one of Beethoven's greatest slow movements.

In a powerfully etched Eroica, the funeral march edged towards 17 minutes in contrast to the just over 12 of metronome-conscious Riccardo Chailly, the Usain Bolt of Beethoven conducting.

Nelsons' approach worked and it made the contrast to the all-dancing finale even greater.

The opening of the fourth symphony was mysterious, eerie and genuinely disturbing.

Beethoven's Fifth is "the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man," wrote EM Forster a century ago but since then it has become an over-familiar commodity.

Credit Nelsons, and the CBSO's energy and vehemence, for restoring its status as sublime noise and making the finale's manic C major iterations warranted by the inexorably increasing harmonic tension.

Usually the Pastoral symphony's storm ends with just a cessation of rain. It should be a Wordsworth moment - the Deity being expressed through nature and Nelsons ensured that the music conveyed Beethoven's vision.

The scherzo gave us real peasants - sweaty, shod in hobnail boots with garlic and beer on their breath, not the city-dwellers in fancy dress we too often get.

The eighth bristled with energy - performed not as a short work but a miracle of compression - capped with a joyous romping finale.

The performance of the seventh was exhilarating, with a dark-browed solemn allegretto and with the strings excelling in a finale of dionysiac frenzy.

It would have been even better if Nelsons had divided the violins left and right.

The theme should be hurled to and fro across the platform which cannot be done when the first and second sections sit cosily together with knees touching.

Beethoven wrote for divided fiddles and here - as well as the third's finale, fourth's adagio, Pastoral's storm and ninth's slow movement - the music demands it.

The cycle culminated in a magnificent ninth: a scherzo of relentless energy, a slow movement wafted in from a beatific realm, an orchestral recitative which really spoke and a well-integrated quartet of soloists in Annette Dasch, Lioba Braun, Ben Johnson and Vuyani Mlinde who were equal to Beethoven's demands.

And of course there's the tremendous 130-strong CBSO Chorus, under their associate conductor David Lawrence, their articulation and attack enhanced by having the score in their heads rather than their heads in the score.

If the CBSO is the crowning glory of Birmingham's musical life then its Chorus is the jewel in that crown.

In Schiller's Ode to Joy, the celebrants are described as "feuertrunken" (drunk on fire) and often the orchestra played like that - intoxicated by Beethoven's music, soaring on a natural high which infected the audience with their enthusiasm and brought us all within the enchanted circle for the duration of each work. It was a privilege to be invited in.

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