Andris Nelsons passed the halfway stage of his Birmingham Beethoven cycle with brilliantly muscular accounts of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and a glossy performance of the concert aria Ah! Perfido.
The CBSO made a compelling case for the Fourth Symphony, an arguably overlooked work described by Schumann as sitting between the “Two Norse giants” that are the Third and Fifth. The low opening chords murmured with rich tone and sleek transitions between notes. Rigorous pinpoint accuracy in the ensemble was apparent from very early, and this was a constant feature through the concert with scarcely an uneven entry all night. When the Allegro vivace appeared, it was propelled forwards with a subtle snap in Nelsons’ beat. The strings in particular carried great vigour, making a pleasing contrast to the woodwinds’ legato interjections. A similar combination shone in the slow movement’s crisp dotted string rhythms and some very fluid woodwind phrasing. The loveliest moments were the hushed clarinet solos. A couple of horn smudges did little to spoil this small sea of calm amid the boisterous energy of the other movements.
The energy never threatened to relax through the third movement, even the gentler trio holding a subtle bounce. The finale showed great virtuosity in the numerous frantic semiquaver passages which pass between woodwind soloists, the bassoon and clarinet particularly witty and well articulated. The strings charged onwards with fierce and relentless energy, and in what seemed to be just a few breathless moments, the symphony was over.
The Fifth Symphony maintained all the excellent features of the Fourth, but felt even more impeccably rehearsed, and unfolded intriguingly into a cohesive whole. Much can be written about the opening four notes, often described as the most famous in music. Here they seemed to hold back from pure aggression, and instead began restlessly. Great power arrived later in the movement, alongside some very convincing dialogue between sections. Minute attention to phrasing was obvious, bringing elegance even to seemingly insignificant passages.
The Andante felt reconciliatory, rather than overly sentimental, after the high drama of the first movement. The tutti realisations of the theme were given a sense of checked heroism by the brass in their subtly accented articulation and the woodwind in very short, quiet staccato. In between, Nelsons allowed tempo and volume to wane in the linking sections, giving the line a sense of easy wandering or floating. The heroic theme was hence very effectively suggested to be a distant dream of victory.
The third movement opened at a steady tempo with gravelly basses, before the horns’ striking entry (Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s likening of this to the horns crying “Fools!” came to mind). The tense quiet in the lead-in to the finale was held until very late, which made the sudden eruption of the finale all the more triumphant. Nelsons conducted the brassy chords with punches aimed at the top of the hall’s organ, all the while maintaining unfailingly perfect coordination in attack. From there to the end the music surged unstoppably, pouring out joy to the end. The applause began before the last chord had even finished, and richly deserved it was too.
The two symphonies were separated by Beethoven’s scene and aria Ah! perfido, a work of his twenties which shows rather different, more Mozartian vocal writing to his later works. The strings found a lighter sound, well matched by soprano Carolyn Sampson, who sang with beautiful tone. Her heavy vibrato may not have been to all tastes, but she showed excellent control. One had to wonder, though, whether this was more than a palate-freshener, albeit a very pleasant one.
All in all, this was a superb instalment in what is turning out to be an excellent cycle. Nelsons spoke movingly before the concert about how inspiration can be taken from Beethoven’s journeys from dark to light, and tonight was utterly convincing in this respect.