Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, tagged the 'Romantic' is the work in which the composer found his voice: it remains the most frequently programmed of his early symphonies, sometimes nudging the Seventh and Ninth in terms of concert-hall popularity. Since there is still no danger of Bruckner becoming an over-programmed symphonist in Britain – at least not in the provinces – there are few worries about this work becoming over-familiar. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is an orchestra with a well-established Bruckner tradition and its former musical director Andris Nelsons is something of a Bruckner specialist, so the auguries were favourable for this homecoming concert.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Nelsons recieved a hero's welcome from an audience that was clearly here to see him and had not been deterred by the late subsitution of a work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies for one by Mozart. Without missing a beat, he seemed to pick up with the orchestra from where he'd left off. Although loci of his career now are Boston and Leipzig, the poise wih which he teased  the mysterious opening section out of the strings and horns, you could be forgiven for thinking he'd never been away. The clearing mists  that gradually give way to the exuberant theme on the horns had an elegance that combined with an almost visceral attack that powered through the whole of the first movement. But a rather overthought moment before the recapitulation of the horn theme presaged an eccentric second movement.

In the Andante, Nelsons imposed a slower tempo than usual with the result that the pace began to drag: interest wandered as the music virtually hung fire and what others have likened to a long trek across a bleak and inhospitable landscape was in danger of becoming a sleeper journey. That order was restored in the concluding movements – the 'hunting trip' of the Scherzo was a highlight, wtih the right amount of weight to balance the high spirts and the finale, with its coda seeming to summarise all that has gone before it, was equally impressive - suggests that Nelsons is more at home with Bruckner's extrovert side  A shame that a lapse of concentration should spoil an otherwise distinguished, if leisurely, performance, one that clocked in at close to seventy minutes. 

The concert opened with Peter Maxwell Davies' Trumpet Concerto, an austere work closely related to Davies' projected (but never completed) work on an opera about St Francis of Assissi. This appeared on the programme as an enigmatic substitute for the advertised Mozart symphony and I was glad of the chance to hear something intriguing and unfamiliar. Maxwell Davies' skilful handling of the orchestra allowed soloist Håkan Hardenberger to soar above the forces or integrate himself into the ensemble as the score demanded, culminating in a thrilling cadenza. The concerto finds the composer in something close to a serene mood, free of the jagged edges and eccentric humour to be found in more typical works and it gave Hardenberger ample scope to display his virtuosity. 

A challenging programme, then; and a mostly successful evening.

****1