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Review: CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall

Andris Nelsons returned to conduct the CBSO.

CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall
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CBSO classical music conductor Andris Nelsons in 2012.
CBSO classical music conductor Andris Nelsons in 2012.

Football fans generally boo when someone who's moved on elsewhere from their team later returns to the stadium wearing different colours. Not so at Symphony Hall, when Andris Nelsons returned to conduct the CBSO he had left for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was acclaimed here now as a conquering hero -- or prodigal son?

The hard-nosed American atmosphere seems to have stiffened Nelsons and have made him more aware of the strengths within him. This extra layer of self-confidence certainly emerged in his conducting of Peter Maxwell Davies' Trumpet Concerto (contemporary music has been until now a small quotient in Nelsons' repertoire), collaborating with soloist Hakan Hardenberger in a rich, sinewy reading, firmly structured from Stygian gloom to huge glowing climaxes.

Hardenberger's contribution scuttered with tripping articulation and sang with generous phrasing, and Nelsons (let's not forget he began as a trumpeter) breathed as one with his soloist.

If this offering was a revelation, the performance of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony which followed was a glorious affirmation of Nelsons' stature as a conductor of this Wagner-revering composer.

We were made subconsciously aware of the huge arc of the work's architecture, from the shimmering opening (and Elspeth Dutch's evocative and immaculate horn solo) right to the very ending, almost rainbow-bridge in its grandeur, and with Nelsons achieving a cut-off which left us stunned in midair.

Along the way there was so much to admire: the empathetic interweaving of Dutch and Marie-Christine Zupancic's flute; the magisterial timpanism of another returnee, Peter Hill; Nelsons' firm grip over the score's characteristic two+three rhythms; the sturdy brass chorales (trumpeter Alan Thomas yet another welcome returnee).

There was a huge emotional release at the end, from audience, players, and from Andris Nelsons himself, whose gestures and body-language signified so much joy at being back in what had once been his "home".

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