Beethoven & Nelsons: Syms 8 & 9

Andris Nelsons is a young, charismatic conductor who was scooped up by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when he was even younger. He has set the world alight: regular assignments with the world's best orchestras and in the world's best opera houses confirm his talent.  He conducts like a man possessed by the music (in a good way) and is clearly a dream to work with.  I've heard him do great things in Birmingham and Berlin albeit not in the flesh.  His account of Britten's War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral was especially moving, though not perfect, and showed he is more than a show pony.

He's just concluding a concert cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the CBSO and it's chorus which has been acclaimed to the hilt.  I haven't caught much of it but I did pay special attention to the last concert, broadcast by Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago.  That hideously familiar programme of Beethoven Symphonies No 8 and 9.  Soloists included the fabulous Ben Johnson and the awesome Lucy Crowe.  I raised an eyebrow at his conducting of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony at the Proms in 2012 - lifting it from it's wartime associations seemed to me to be just the wrong thing to do with that symphony.  By the end of this concert, my eyebrows orbited in the stratosphere. No concert performance is perfect but I don't think that it lived up to the hype or the reception.

It was most certainly all the notes, but it had no driving vision, no direction and not even a consistent sound.

The Eighth was weak until the last movement when it appeared to have gathered itself together and be offering a puckish jollity - but then AN changed his mind and didn't keep the mood.  One might argue that Beethoven is all things to all people but that can't be the case for the conductor.

This was big band Beethoven - not quite as controversial as Chailly's retrograde cycle on Decca - but offering little to HIP practice.  There were - the announcer told us - 8 double basses: how come they were so little used?  The woodwind in particular seemed to suffer, the notes were there but the tone seemed confused.  The timpani were intrusive in the scherzo and the low strings aurally absent for much of the Eighth Symphony.  The development of the Eighth's first movement lacked effect, it's all about the accents on the beat and the offbeats.  It had none of the bite of Vänskä's recording or brutality of Karajan's 1980s recording so it drifted.  There was a lack of clarity in the fugues in the Ninth and that symphony's slow movements seem to drift like the nursery curtains wafted by a breeze.  Too often I felt I couldn't see where this music was going.  The playing was fine, the choral singing too - though I think Schiller's poem should be declamatory and not personalised.  The radio presentation made the chorus sound a tad mushy - I'm sure they were not in the hall, but the weak last "funcken" did make me wonder.  The soloists - Lucy Crowe, soprano, Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano, Ben Johnson, tenor, Iain Paterson, bass were good especially Paterson. Johnson was rushed through the march so he struggled a little.

This certainly wasn't great Beethoven - through no fault of the performers - though it may the case that all young conductors need to do Beethoven a lot before they can actually make a stab at interpretation.  Karajan's advice to Rattle was  "throw away your first hundred Fifths". It was scarcely good Beethoven in my book, given the resources at his disposal - though many critics and much of his audience disagree.  I was struck that only in the West Midlands would one get a football supporter's "YESSSS!!!!" at the end of a performance bellowed out as the final chord still echoed. I guess Villa, both Citys and Albion fans don't get the chance very often in their respective stadia so it's excused. Of course, I will give Andris Nelson's time - he has more time than I do to make better Beethoven.  But let's keep it in proportion: hype won't help him now.


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