It may have been the autumn equinox, but this evening spring came to a balmy Birmingham, meteorologically and musically. Symphony Hall was abuzz in anticipation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the piece’s centenary year, but the concert – and the 2013/14 season – was launched with Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. It’s no secret that Andris Nelsons is a passionate devotee and respected exponent of Wagner, but this particular piece was where it all started for him, the fuse that lit the spark of his love for classical music. And we certainly saw Nelsons the Wagnerian tonight, inhabiting the music, adopting a dramatic stance or literally jumping up and down, depending on the mood that was to be conveyed. At times this – together with the occasional grunt accompanying an emphatic entry – was a little distracting, but the end result was to wring out every last ounce of effort and art from the orchestra, who were clearly exceedingly happy in their work.

Anne-Sophie Mutter © Harald Hoffman
Anne-Sophie Mutter
© Harald Hoffman

The opera’s contrasting themes of sensual and spiritual love mean that the overture shifts between dignified solemnity in woodwind and brass, representing pilgrims’ chanting, and arching, yearning string lines for the temptations of the flesh. Solo clarinet and violin duet were movingly handled, then full orchestra gathered into an emphatic, martial sound, bolstered by dramatic percussion, the whole company oozing incredible energy.

A pared-down orchestra – and eager audience – then welcomed Anne-Sophie Mutter on stage. She has recently recorded Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor with the Berlin Philharmonic, and a video diary on her website offers fascinating insights into the piece and the process of bringing the project to fruition. Following the success of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, Fritz Simrock, Brahms’ publisher, asked the Czech composer to write a violin concerto that would be “truly original, tuneful and aimed at good violinists”. Joseph Joachim, star violinist of the day, worked on it but wanted huge changes. To and fro it went, with the finished version finally completed four years later and premièred by Czech violinist František Ondrícek. Mutter draws attention to the fine sense of balance required between soloist and orchestra, and describes the concerto as “demanding but not ungrateful”. The A minor key gives the violin a natural brilliance and radiance, and the soloist is involved almost from the outset, following a vigorous but brief orchestral introduction. The Bohemian, songlike Allegro eases gently into the subtle, soulful Adagio, with the finale a sparkling Slavonic dance.

Mutter stood surprising far back and very close to the conductor’s podium, so for audience members in certain positions in the hall she would have been visually eclipsed by Nelsons. This would have been a shame, as it was as much a joy to watch her involvement with the piece as to hear her virtuoso execution of it. The control of pianissimo passages was delightful, as were the foot-tapping dance rhythms of the finale, supported by finely balanced and exciting playing from the CBSO. Taking her applause, which included cheers and whistles, Mutter offered Nelsons her cloth for his fevered brow, raising a chuckle all round.

An encore was prefaced with the soloist’s invitation to “lower your heart rate a little...”, and she gave us an exquisite rendition of J.S.Bach’s Sarabande in D minor, with a long final note that defied belief.

A hundred years and a million miles since its original riotous reception, tonight’s Rite of Spring received instead tumultuous acclaim. This tour de force, full of complex technical innovations in its day, seems to be a minefield of coordination of the massive orchestral forces, which paid off with truly exciting results. Texture galore, from the initial lone bassoon through the layering of other soloists, groups, whole sections and full orchestra, with a strong emphasis on pulse. It’s music that cries out to be heard (and seen) live – the cellists’ heads thrusting to repeated, pounding, accented beats will be a lasting visual memory.

The percussion got a good workout, and were justifiably singled out for applause, as were the various soloists and sections. After multiple curtain calls, Nelsons was forced to accept the cheers for himself alone, the orchestra resolutely refusing to be brought to their feet until he’d definitely got the message. The message seemed to be: we’re in for a great season.