Knowing that Andris Nelsons’ concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will soon be fewer and farther between made his withdrawal from this concert regrettable. That he is a Strauss conductor of distinction further added to the disappointment and I wonder if the performance of Don Quixote was to have been taped as part of his on-going Strauss recording project with the orchestra. Still, hopes were high for an enjoyable performance of two German masterworks in the capable hands of Nelsons’ replacement, Walter Weller.

Walter Weller © Frank Höhler
Walter Weller
© Frank Höhler

Weller has enjoyed a long relationship with the CBSO as a guest conductor and he recorded a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies with them in the late 1980s. At the age of 75 he cuts a relatively frail figure compared with older conductors such as Haitink, Marriner and Previn. The orchestra played handsomely for him and the opening of Strauss’ tone poem showed off many of their fine qualities: creamy, deft woodwind playing and sumptuous-toned strings. This was a measured opening, building slowly to the introduction’s dissonant climax at the moment when Don Quixote “loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a kinght-errant". From this point in the music, Cervantes’ metamorphosed protagonist is represented by a solo cello.

Soloist, Eduardo Vassallo’s portrayal of Don Quixote was everything it should be: noble and earnest in character. Vassallo was soon joined on his journey by solo violist, Christopher Yates, taking on the character of Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s witless neighbour who agrees to be his squire along the way. Yates’ playing was very fine indeed and it seems a shame to me that the solo violist tends to remain tucked away in the tutti viola section while the cello soloist occupies the chair of a concerto soloist. There is no doubting, however, that the cellist has much the greater part to play in this piece. There was always a strong sense of collaboration between the two players, despite their geographical separation.

There were fine solos from leader Laurence Jackson and Rainer Gibbons, principal oboist, too. For all the beauty of the playing, however, there was a notable deficit in character and wit in Weller’s interpretation. This can’t have been aided by his tempo choices, which tended to the pedestrian. While this allowed for some gorgeous playing, the livelier variations just did not take flight, quite literally in the seventh variation depicting the Don’s imaginary ride through the air. As the work drew to a close, however, the ponderous tempo was more appropriate to the subject of Quixote’s impending downfall and death. Here, Vassallo’s playing was quite beautiful, the orchestra suitably wistful but there was the nagging feeling that the essence of this piece had died much earlier.

Ponderous tempi were also a feature of Weller’s interpretation of Brahms’ First Symphony and the pace of the opening bars had seemingly been anticipated in the pounding timpani strokes in the final variation of Don Quixote. Brahms’s symphonies can take a variety of approaches but surely a young man’s first symphony should burst into being with more vitality than was the case here? Those solemn timpani strokes were underpinned by yet more lovely string playing but Weller opted to elongate this and that phrase, even in the context of the broad tempi, often to the point of caricature.

The most successful older conductors of recent times, such as Haitink, the late Abbado and Colin Davis, would frequently re-evaluate the works that they had conducted countless times in their careers and some of their best performances would bring fresh insights into the most established core repertoire. Sir Simon Rattle recently directed a relatively traditional performance (honed in Berlin, no doubt) of this piece with the same orchestra but cleverly highlighted the key symphonic details that make Brahms’ architecture so innovative. Weller, by contrast, was content to resurrect a performance tradition in the mould of post-Toscanini and post-Furtwängler interpreters of the 1950s and 1960s: the aesthetic of the music rather than the substance being both the means and the end.

There were moments when the performance came to life, such as in the peak of Brahms’ developments and in the delightfully lilting third movement when the tempo actually felt right. There was a certain inevitability, however, about the extent to which Weller broadened the return of the famous chorale in the epic last movement. It was, quite possibly, the slowest I have ever heard this played. Composer, Hans Gál, in his authoritative book on Brahms, published in 1963, bemoaned this creeping practice of broadening the chorale. No doubt there were some present who enjoyed Weller’s approach but I feared more for the numerous young members of the audience who might well have wondered what the point of a Brahms symphony was, beyond sounding nice.

**111