To put together a list of Andris Nelsons’ top ten concerts with the CBSO is no easy task.

How on earth could a mere 9 or 10 do justice to the amazing experiences conductor, orchestra and adoring audience have shared during the heady seven years of his music directorship, every concert galvanising under his baton, every concert seeing the orchestra under concertmaster Laurence Jackson refusing to stand until their beloved conductor had received justified applause on his own?

But here we go. You might feel tempted to disagree and add your own unforgettables; please do.

Read who we think will replace Andris Nelsons here

Nelsons’ appointment

This was announced immediately after a private (not even the Birmingham Post was invited) performance he gave with the CBSO just before the reopening of Birmingham Town Hall after its wonderful refurbishment.

The programme he conducted in what was in fact an audition there, Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Dvorak’s New World Symphony, was replicated a few weeks later at Symphony Hall, when this modest young man introduced himself to the Birmingham public. That was quite an occasion. And there were other amazing Strauss performances to follow, not least Ein Heldenleben and the Alpensinfonie, both set down on disc by Orfeo.

Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

Andris is a great conductor of opera

Very early on he gave us a memorably engaging concert-performance of Puccini’s La Boheme, with his enchanting wife Kristine Opolais as Mimi.

And there have been other great operatic events under his baton, including a wonderful account of Wagner’s Lohengrin, just before Andris conducted it at Bayreuth to huge acclaim (never mind the rat-infested production), the same composer’s Flying Dutchman, and a Richard Strauss Rosenakavalier last May which still brings tears to the eyes of anyone who recalls it.

Soprano Kristine Opolais. Picture Marco Borggreve
Soprano Kristine Opolais. Picture Marco Borggreve

Wagner moments

Mention of Wagner brings us to the symphonies of Bruckner, the arch-classicist who brought Wagnerian harmonies to enrich his contrapuntal palette. And from Andris we have heard the proudly Wagnerian Third Symphony, happily preserved on a BBC Music CD, and the Wagner-tribute Seventh, glowingly magnificent.

Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO Youth Orchestra at Symphony Hall in 2009.
Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO Youth Orchestra at Symphony Hall in 2009.


Talking of symphonies, let’s not forget the little matter of the complete Beethoven cycle delivered over four days at last autumn’s BeethovenFest in the composer’s home city of Bonn (repeated the next week back in Birmingham).

There were standing ovations from the Germans even at the interval of the opening concert, and the continued acclaim, for Nelsons and the CBSO was unsurpassed.

And it brought me the performance I most treasure from Nelsons’ CBSO years, an interpretation of the patted-on-the-head Fourth Symphony which revealed all its psychological angst in a way I doubt we will ever hear again.

Great symphonic performances

Other great symphonic performances stay in the memory, including an amazing Mahler Six, so incredibly poised between classical restraint and expressionistic colouring, and a Shostakovich Eleven which seared in its graphic detail. The latter ended a concert which began with some Elgar First World War rarities, Nelsons underlining how much this quintessentially “English” composer was in fact firmly rooted in the Wagner/Strauss tradition.

Benjamin Britten anniversary

Far more naturally “English” is Benjamin Britten, and the golden anniversary of the world premiere of that composer’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral was marked by the return of the CBSO (who had given the original performance) to that iconic building on the very day (May 30).

Nelsons presided over a searing performance, and it took well over a minute of stunned, reflective silence before applause gradually emerged. The chorus at the premiere had been efficient, no more. This time it was Simon Halsey’s remarkable CBSO Chorus, hurling the terror and soothing the solace, the equally remarkable CBSO Youth Chorus playing its part too. The event was televised live all over Europe. BBC-TV was shamefully conspicuous by its absence. Thank goodness for the Arthaus Musik DVD.

Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten

The Proms

Another major out-of-town event was the CBSO’s annual appearance at the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2009, when Andris conducted Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto (a much finer work than its ubiquitous predecessor). Stephen Hough was the probing, brilliant soloist, and the important solo string contributions in the slow movement came from CBSO principals.

The Royal Albert Hall
The Royal Albert Hall


Andris has a natural temperamental affinity with Tchaikovsky. I would love to experience his conducting of the great opera Eugene Onegin, but meanwhile we can savour in the memory his conducting of the symphonies and various tone-poems. His interpretation of the Dantesque Francesca da Rimini is the best I have ever heard, and I treasure the Orfeo CD.

His final moments

This entry has yet to happen. As we steel ourselves for Andris Nelsons’ departure to the blandishments of Boston, we can look forward to two major events: a concert-performance of Wagner’s Parsifal, an opera Andris has long dreamed of conducting (and whose Act III received a memorable performance from the CBSO under Simon Rattle many years ago), and then, for Andris’ farewell concerts, Mahler’s gigantic, pantheistic Third Symphony. Both of these will vie shoulder-to-shoulder for inclusion in my subjective list.

I wonder what Andris Nelsons’ own highlights would be?

andris nelsons
andris nelsons