Andris Nelsons and the CBSO brought their superb Beethoven cycle to a close with fine performances of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

The CBSO conducted by Andris Nelsons © Neil Pugh
The CBSO conducted by Andris Nelsons
© Neil Pugh

The Eighth Symphony suffers from sitting in the shade of the Seventh and Ninth, but Beethoven’s “Little” F major symphony has a great deal to offer. It seems to swing between childlike boisterousness and gentle lyricism, often in successive phrases, but it was the latter which came off best tonight. Andris Nelsons’ favoured Beethoven method, a traditional, full-textured approach, works well for this, giving him a warm, rich sound palette. The contours of the softer phrases, such as the second of the whole piece, were beautifully expressed, aided by Nelsons’ beat changing to one-in-a-bar and coloured by excellent balance between woodwind and horns.

There was grace too, in the transparent violin sound of the second movement and later in a superb third-movement trio. The horns, clarinet and cello interacted beautifully here. Nelsons constantly found pleasing touches to personalise his reading, happy to take performance directions with a large pinch of salt and add his own in places, along with plenty of rubato in the inner movements. One very nice touch was in the trio, where he entrusted the cello triplet line to the principal cellist while the rest of the section doubled the double bass pizzicato.

The finale was full of energy, a rhythmic thump driving the movement along. The humorous aspects of the music were well highlighted, and the aggressive assertions of F major near the end were violently accented. It was an energetic ending, but it was the elegance of the earlier movements which made the greatest impression.

In his excellent pre-concert talk, the philosopher and critic Michael Tanner called the Ninth Symphony a “monumental document in the history of civilisation”. The ensuing performance did not disappoint. The first two movements were tempestuous in the extreme, often sounding almost Brucknerian in their power and spaciousness. A large double bass section, superb timpani playing and doubled woodwind gave a thick, full sound where needed. As in the Eighth, the contrast with the softer subjects was very strong, and once again Nelsons was liberal in his application of rubato and dynamic markings. A frequent and very effective technique was the prolonged pianissimo before a sudden, dramatic crescendo. The very last crescendo of the first movement, though, was greatly prolonged. There was no suggestion of a beat from Nelsons; instead, he stood with quivering arms outstretched as the sound grew from the depths of the orchestra. A collective “phew” was audible from the audience after the last note.

A long pause was taken before the slow movement. The opening chords were feather-light before opening out with gorgeous warmth. The woodwind achieved a similar warmth when they took the theme. Again, beating was a side-issue for Nelsons, whose concern for phrase shaping produced some wonderful moments. When the famous theme of the fourth movement appeared, he maintained a soft legato which gave a tremendous sense of innocence and optimism. Even with the multiple orchestral layers being added, the strong impression was of hope, rather than joy.

The great sense of joy finally burst out to shattering effect at the 6/8 time chorus after an intense fugue. The CBSO Chorus were magnificent, attending to clear diction whilst providing a vast wave of sound. There was a subtle push on “Brüder” to emphasise Schiller’s call for brotherhood. The coda was as thrilling an end to the cycle as could be hoped for, taken at a quick prestissimo and earning a huge ovation, especially for the chorus and their director, Simon Halsey. Even a sleeping guide dog was roused into tail-wagging enthusiasm during the last pages.

The four soloists were excellent too, although I wondered if they would have projected better from the front of the stage rather than behind the horns. Soprano Lucy Crowe showed a beautiful tone with no threat of shrillness, working particularly well in partnership with Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo). Ben Johnson (tenor) gave a buoyant Turkish March and bass Iain Paterson’s opening summons to more joyful tones was very well done.

Part of the publicity for the cycle advertised “a fresh look at Beethoven’s symphonies”, a bold claim indeed for these staples of the repertoire. Nelsons has coloured all nine with his own vision, and his full-bodied, romantic interpretations have produced some wonderful results, of which the seventh and ninth were particularly memorable. It has been a fabulous season-long endeavour, proving that Beethoven can always sound new in the right hands.

****1