Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

I could really find nothing about which to cavil
at the orchestral performance. Andris Nelsons’s conducting, however, remained
distinctly mixed in quality. He eschewed fashionable ideas concerning tempo and
offered a refreshingly slow introduction. The main body of the Overture started
intriguingly post-Mozartian fashion, seeming — surprisingly — to hint at
The Marriage of Figaro. However, Rossini soon, bizarrely, seemed to
supplant Mozart, and we found ourselves in the world of Toscanini. The
Beethovenian weight of Klemperer was nowhere to be heard. If ‘Italianate’
Beethoven were your thing, you would probably have liked it more than I did.

John Woolrich’s Falling Down, ‘a capricho for double bassoon
and orchestra’, followed. The solo part was taken by Margaret Cookhorn, the
dedicatee of this piece, first performed by the same forces in 2009 as a CBSO
commission. They all seemed to play it very well indeed; I wish I could have
thought more of the work itself. A colourful, spiky, somewhat Stravinskian
opening augured well, its material reappearing throughout the quarter of an
hour or so. Some harmonies put me in mind a little of Prokofiev, and there was
indeed, something of a balletic quality. Antiphonally placed timpani had an
important role, well taken. But once one is past the interesting
‘experience’ of a concertante piece for contrabassoon, Falling
seems, at best, over-extended. There is only so much it can do as a
solo instrument but, more to the point, what soloist and orchestra do soon
seems repetitive. I have responded much more readily to the composer’s
Monteverdi reworkings.

The performance of the Ninth Symphony grew in stature, but I am afraid this
was not — for me, although the audience in general seemed wildly enthusiastic
— that elusive, compelling modern performance we all crave. Daniel
Barenboim’s Proms performance in 2012
was nowhere challenged — not
least since there was no doubt whatsoever in Barenboim’s performance that the
work meant something, and something of crucial, undying importance at
that. There was good news in the first movement. First, it was not taken
absurdly fast; nor was it metronomic in its progress. And yet, despite the
undoubted excellence of the CBSO’s playing, I found myself at a loss as to
what the music in performance might actually mean. Too often, extreme dynamic
contrasts — somewhat smoothed over by the notorious Albert Hall acoustic —
seemed just that; why was a phrase played quite so softly? There was
wonderful clarity, enabling woodwind lines not just to be heard, but to sing.
What, however, were they singing about? There was real menace, though, in the
coda, even if it seemed somewhat to have come from nowhere. Applause: really?!

The Scherzo was taken fast, very fast: nothing wrong with that. My chief
reservation remained, however, and ultimately this was a smoothly
‘reliable’ performance rather than a revelation. Where were the anger, the
vehemence, the human obstreperousness of Beethoven? Applause proves still less
welcome here. The slow movement was taken at a convincing tempo, its hushed
nobility, with especial thanks to euphonious woodwind, greatly welcome. I was
less convinced that the metaphysical dots were joined up, or even, sometimes,
noticed. Whatever my doubts, though, there was no denying the beauty of the
playing (an intervention from an audience glass towards the close

Nelsons forestalled applause, thank goodness, by moving immediately to the
finale. He and the orchestra fairly sprung into and through its opening: very
impressive on its own terms, although it would surely have hit home harder, had
it been properly prepared by what had gone before. The cellos really dug into
their strings too. Nelsons had them and the double basses paly deliciously
softly for their recitative; now, a true sense of drama announced itself,
expectant rather than merely soft. Bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas delivered
his ‘proper’ recitative, ‘O Freunde …’, with almost Sarastro-like
sincerity and deliberation. I liked the way the rejection of such ‘Tˆne’
was no easy decision. The soloists as a whole did a good job; that there
remains a multiplicity of options, and dare, I suggest, a residual
insufficiency to any one quartet, says more about Beethoven’s strenuousness
of vision and humility before his God than performance as such. The CBSO
Chorus, singing from memory, was quite simply outstanding. Weight and clarity
reinforced each other rather than proving, as so often, contradictory
imperatives. Nelsons imparted an unusual sense of narrative propulsion, almost
as if this were an opera, or at least an oratorio: I am not sure what I think
of such a conception, but it was interesting to hear it, and there was no
doubting now the conviction with which it was instantiated. The almost
superhuman clarity of the chorus’s words — ‘Und der Cherub steht vor
Gott!’ a fitting climax to that first section — certainly helped. It was
fun, moreover, to be reminded of the contrabassoon immediately afterwards. (Was
that the tenuous connection with the Woolrich piece?) The infectious quality to
the ‘Turkish March’ brought with it welcome reminiscences of Die
Entf¸hrung aus dem Serail
. And the return to ‘Freude, schˆner
Gˆtterfunken’ proved exultant in that deeply moving way that is
Beethoven’s own. (If only the abuse of this work by the European Union had
not had me think of the poor Greeks at this point — but, on second thoughts,
that was probably a good thing too.) If only Nelsons could have started again,
and reworked the meaning he seemed to find here into the earlier movements,
especially the first two, we might have had a great performance. As it stood,
there remained a good deal later on to have us think.

Mark Berry

Programme and performers:

Beethoven —The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43: Overture;
Woolrich — Falling Down (London premiere); Beethoven — Symphony
no.9 in D minor, op.125.

Margaret Cookhorn (contra-bassoon); Lucy Crowe (soprano); Gerhild
Romberger (mezzo-soprano); Pavel ?ernoch (tenor); Kostas Smoriginas
(bass-baritone); CBSO Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)/City of Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London,
Sunday 19 July 2015.

image_description=Andris Nelsons
product_title=Prom 4: Andris Nelsons
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Andris Nelsons