Andris Nelsons marked the second instalment in the Birmingham Beethoven cycle with two works of the earliest years of the 19th century, featuring a solid account of the Eroica and a superb performance of the Triple Concerto.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

The Triple Concerto is a strange work. Unlike much of Beethoven’s other music it seems to look backward to the concerto grosso format, having a small group of soloists, and it is noticeably lighter in structure and themes than almost all his other orchestral works. The slow movement, despite its beautiful cello theme, accounts for around an eighth of the whole concerto. Perhaps for these reasons, it is rarely played: there are just four upcoming performances currently listed on Bachtrack. Nonetheless, Nelsons and the three fine soloists made a very strong case for the work in a performance full of charm and humour.

I have never seen a group of players enjoy playing together so visibly as pianist Lars Vogt, violinist Baiba Skride and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. Each would sway gently and lean towards the others for musical dialogue. Their clear rapport imbued the performance with an infectious sense of fun whilst achieving perfect coordination in their ensemble. Clearly they all wanted to be there: none of the soloists, conductor or orchestra took a fee for this concert in aid of the orchestra’s benevolent fund. Each displayed a palette of controlled pianissimo and exuberant bravado. Beethoven gives the cellist the dominant role, and Müller-Schott played beautifully. His handling of the second movement’s lyrical melody was magnificent, and Skride’s hushed violin accompaniment was a subtle icing.

The orchestra played with grace and a suppleness which allowed them to match the soloists’ rubato. There were some nice woodwind solos in the third movement, and Nelsons drove them on with a sense of excitable fun towards a dancing coda. Few could have hoped to hear such a compelling case for the Triple.

The symphony was a complete contrast in mood. Nelsons’ reading gave a very clear and coherent image of a tragic fall from grace and slow rebirth of hope and joy. The key to this was a surprisingly desolate slow movement from which the optimism of the later movements could grow.

The first movement had an easy grandeur in its steady tempo. There was no sense of excessive heroism or brash arrogance, but a genuine feeling of comfortable power. The relatively slow tempo allowed great clarity to be heard in the fugal passages of the development, and in general this worked quite well in suggesting humble authority. The second movement immediately brought this into question, with an ultra-soft first theme. A grieving, weeping oboe took over, leaving a feeling of wistfulness and emptiness in the briefly shimmering major-key passages. This was real tragedy, almost to the point of bleakness. It may have been too slow for some, but the atmosphere it set up allowed the later movements to build optimism from scratch.

After a suitably boisterous Scherzo, the Finale opened its variations on the Creatures of Prometheus theme with delicate charm and pleasing clarity. The horns initially seemed slightly restrained in their heroic variation, perhaps a nod to the tragedy of the slow movement, before accepting further grandeur. The coda erupted with barely a gasp of breath and bounded to a joyful end. It had been a fine performance, above all cogent in making the whole symphony revolve around the slow movement.

The concert was recorded for a CD release which will be eagerly awaited, particularly for the concerto. A small irritation was an intermittent high-pitched whine, perhaps from a hearing aid or the recording equipment, but this sell-out concert left all present with warm smiles.