The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was on top form for Andris Nelsons and Stephen Hough in this splendid concert, performed twice – Thursday matinee and Saturday evening – of which I attended the second performance. There was much virtuosity to admire. The cellos, for example, sounded beautifully dark and rich in their big melody in the Intermezzo, second movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, and then even more so as the development section of the first movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony got under way.  They played the lyrical second theme, now inverted from a songful, aspiring rising melody into a deeply meditative, slow descending phrase, darkened by harmonies from violas and double basses, repeated by woodwind and then rising in an arc that passionately extends and elaborates the theme.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Both moments, in the Schuman as well as the Bruckner, are on the edge of being over-sentimental, but there was never any danger of that in a performance where the emphasis was on sheer breathtaking beauty rather than the shuddering of the soul. And in the Bruckner symphony it was the moment where what had been a decent enough presentation of the themes, but somehow a little uninspired, rose to a new level.

It had been prepared by a series of woodwind solos, the woodwind also on excellent form, which were enhanced by the decision to fully open the hall’s reverberant chambers for the Bruckner, the slight echo amplifying the characteristic timbre of each instrument, clarinets, oboe and flute.  Nelsons, already beating a very moderate Allegro, had slowed down significantly to allow this passage its full eloquence.

For the first time with this symphony Bruckner makes use of a quartet of Wagner tubas, and it’s always splendid to see the players assemble on stage with these large instruments of glistening gold.  They have the reputation of being a little troublesome to play, but the Birmingham musicians were faultless and glorious to hear. Their big moment is after the Adagio climax where they play a dirge in memory of Wagner himself, who had died whilst Bruckner was composing the symphony, a dirge capped with a blazing outcry from the horns – all of this magnificently accomplished. And they have repeated chorales to embellish the progress of the finale, and these were again beautifully done.

Altogether it was performance with many such highlights, mostly passages where the sheer beauty of the sound and excellence of the playing gripped one’s attention. But it was an approach that left the impression of an interpretation still in the making, not yet fully achieved, the overall form and trajectory of the symphony not functioning at full power. Some of the build-ups to big climaxes lacked tension, too concerned with the felicitous shaping of individual phrases to the detriment of the continuity of the architecture, though key points, such as the return to the home key and start of the recapitulation proper in the first movement, were nicely underlined. There was certainly never an ugly or ill-shaped passage, nor any hint of earthy vulgarity about the cock-crowing trumpet call Scherzo, where a more heavily accented rhythm can work to a more corporeal effect.

The finale worked very well, the sprightly dotted rhythms of the opening theme splendidly articulated, and the weird climax of the third theme recapitulation, where the fortissimo heavy brass power heavenwards only to stop suddenly in the middle of nowhere, was marvellously done, resisting the temptation to over exaggeration that some interpreters fall prey to. Come the exultant close – well, on this occasion ‘exultant’ is perhaps not really the word, but an almost Richard Strauss-ian display of glorious E major orchestral colour, Andris Nelsons held his arm raised aloft, the audience frozen in stunned silence rather than leaping to its feet in raucous cheering. Finally he lowered his arm, and then the applause thundered in.

Nelsons had chosen to perform the edition of the symphony by Robert Haas which is devoid of cymbal and triangle at the Adagio climax and of many tempo nuances in the finale. This seemed consonant with a rather refined view of the work as a thing of many great and magical beauties, but perhaps without aspirations towards the more structural, more dramatic and even soul-searching possibilities of the work.

Stephen Hough’s performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto in the first half had been filled with intelligence and vitality, a display of absolute mastery. The balance of piano and orchestra, and the interplay between soloist and members of the orchestra – especially the excellent clarinet playing of Oliver Janes – was a delight to hear. After the meditative Intermezzo, the exuberant finale broke through with refined high-spirits, presenting a bright and joyful spectacle.

Hough closed the first half with a nicely executed Träumerei from Schumann’s Kinderscenen.  Nelsons closed the concert with a little speech in which he thanked the audience for coming, wished them all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and said that he was really glad that so many people came to listen to Bruckner: “sometimes people are afraid, but actually, as you see, it is absolutely magic and absolutely amazing, particularly with this orchestra”.