Andris Nelsons continued his Beethoven cycle with deeply personal and thrilling accounts of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies to a sold-out Symphony Hall.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Beethoven’s first Romance for violin and orchestra was moved to open the concert late in the day. Separating it from the end of the Sixth Symphony seemed a wise move, rather than treating it as an encore, and it worked well as aperitif to the pastoral joys of the symphony. CBSO leader Laurence Jackson was soloist, and with a slightly pared-down orchestra he gave a spacious and hymn-like reading of this serene work. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, this was far from being a shy or retiring performance, and a reasonable degree of directness gave good colour to the darker tones of the middle section. In Thursday’s repeat of the concert, the first Romance will be replaced by the second.

In both symphonies Nelsons showed his willingness to put his own stamp on these staples of the repertoire. In introducing the concert he described the Sixth as one of Beethoven’s most romantic works, and to this end his close direction brought out free fluctuations in dynamics and tempo. Early on he seemed keen to highlight the lower strings, which gave the famed woodwind melodies a substantial feeling of representing something rather more than a stroll through the countryside. Elsewhere his sudden pianissimos and relatively strong fortes made for an old-fashioned sort of Beethoven, conveying a heartfelt love for nature. The slow movement was unsentimental, portraying a fairly swift-moving brook with good clarity in the strings, and liberties of tempo and phrasing avoided any threat of this occasionally repetitive movement feeling that way.

The third and fourth movements gave hints of the aggression which would later be found in the Seventh. The rural dance of the third was brisk and vigorous. Doubled up for the evening, the horns in particular skipped along boisterously, though principal Elspeth Dutch’s solos showed a beautifully legato tone. This gave way to a brutal storm, high drama which was vividly reminiscent of the same orchestra’s Flying Dutchman performance four days ago. Nelsons handled the transition to the finale with consummate care, easing into it with sublime gentleness. His micro-pauses and subtleties of phrasing were carried off with full commitment from all and with smiles passing around the string section. It was still forward-looking and full-bodied for the most part, and came to a close with glowing warmth. It was a shame, then, that the last note was instantly answered with an aggressive “Bravo” and applause, for a performance of such quality deserved at least a moment of quiet.

Much has been written about Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies being the ones in which he breaks new ground, and the Seventh is no exception; Weber is said to have declared Beethoven ripe for the mad house after hearing an early performance. Tonight Nelsons made a good case for Weber’s comment with a performance of ferocious energy and military precision. Even the slow introduction was given a sleeves-rolled-up treatment with punched tutti chords, and the main theme was given a constantly bounding drive by Nelsons. The trumpets and timpani were noisy accompanists, and such was the force behind the rhythmic pulse that the movement occasionally seemed to be a slightly scary dance in parts of the development.

In the slow movement it was only occasionally that glimpses of a softer, warm aspect of the symphony were allowed to shine. There was a lovely passage in which the winds’ metronomic accompaniment was glided over by a legato violin melody, but otherwise this was a relentless assertion of the long-short-short rhythm. Again, Nelsons’ capricious dynamics made for fascinating listening. Exuberant energy returned to the Scherzo, marked by crisp string attack. The third movement’s trio was something of a surprise, taken relatively slowly and with a heroic sort of sweep.

The fourth movement was taken at a blistering speed, and credit must go to the strings for having the stamina to maintain this. There was ferocious attack from all corners, many string players seeming close to rising from their seats in the dramatic ascent to the coda, and the symphony galloped to its conclusion in a whirlwind of breathless energy. This time the immediate cheer was entirely appropriate.

These weren’t the most subtle Sixth and Seventh, but the sort of heart-on-sleeve Beethoven heard less often now than in times past. For such extensively performed and recorded works, though, it was a great joy to witness Andris Nelsons’ take on them.