No cause for alarm, but last Wednesday Andris Nelsons stopped conducting the CBSO. Not all the time, I stress, but frequently enough for us to appreciate the trust that exists between him and his beloved players.
Having set the tempo and balanced the textures, he then had the confidence in this crack orchestra with which he shares such empathy just to stand by and listen, all smiles, with just the occasional flick of the baton to keep things going.
The secret behind this is of course meticulous preparation (Nelsons’ rehearsals are as enthralling as his concerts), and affection for the works in performance. And what wonderful works these were in this Viva Italia! programme, illustrating the pull that sun-blessed country exerted upon creative artists from the colder north and east, ending with Tchaikovsky’s irresistible Capriccio Italien after the leaping exhilaration of Mendelssohn’s ItalianSymphony.
More questionable were the “Italian” qualifications of Richard Strauss’ rambling Aus Italien, virtually a four-movement symphony but with no Italian elements until the embarrassing variations upon “Funiculi, funicula!” which the gullible composer assumed was an ancient folksong (the Vesuvius funicular railway which was the subject of this commercial pop-song was only six years old at the time of Strauss’ composition).
Never mind, the performance did all it could to convince, with gossamer upper strings, a pungent undertow and well-characterised winds. Perhaps we will get more used to the work when the Orfeo recording of this live performance is released.
In the second half we relished two genuine masterpieces. The Mendelssohn was instantly galvanising, typically elfin and lively, and the Tchaikovsky, after the scariness of its opening (it terrified me as a two-year-old when I heard it on Dad’s 78s), just burst with joyous interaction between the players - and what a scintillating solo from trumpeter Jonathan Quirk.