An acute ear infection put Andris Nelsons out of action for this, his penultimate Birmingham programme with the orchestra he has led for seven years. I can only wish him a speedy recovery so that he can take on his epic farewell concerts next week. Fortunately, his Birmingham-born assistant, Alpesh Chauhan, was on hand at the last minute to fill his shoes for this concert.

Alpesh Chauhan © operaomnia.co.uk
Alpesh Chauhan
© operaomnia.co.uk

Chauhan has been Assistant Conductor, a newly created role, at the CBSO since October 2014. This concert will have been a rare opportunity to take on a complete and meaty programme with the orchestra in that role. It was clear that he has developed quite a rapport with the players over this period, his gestures to them being lucid and communicative. The capacity audience rightly gave him a warmly appreciative welcome to the stage.

It would certainly be interesting to know how much of the performance had been prepared by Nelsons and how much time Chauhan had directly with the orchestra. The conception of Schubert’s enigmatic “Unfinished” Symphony was certainly fully formed. The brooding opening in the lower strings seemed unusually spacious but turned out to be a rather artful preface to the first subject proper, which moved along as it should. The strings sounded lovely and Chauhan coaxed a magical pianissimo from the cellos and basses in the mysterious opening of the development before making them erupt to great effect. I rather felt, however, that the overall flow of the piece was disturbed by a tendency to give each section a tempo of its own, effective though that was in highlighting the drama in this music. There was some beautiful playing in the consoling second movement, however, with fine contributions from the principal clarinet and oboe. 

Strauss’ Horn Concerto no. 2 in E flat major is a much subtler affair than his youthful First. The whooping, ebullient horn writing from his tone poems and operas seems a million miles away. I suspect that is the point in this work: to showcase the beauty of the instrument’s singing voice more than its bravado, though there’s plenty of that to impress listeners too. The CBSO’s principal hornist, Elspeth Dutch, was an ideal exponent for the work. She knows Symphony Hall’s acoustic well and how to make her horn sing both with and above the orchestra. She made the opening arpeggio seem effortless and produced a lovely, legato sound.

Chauhan was an excellent accompanist and ensured the CBSO strings provided a soft cushion of sound to support Dutch. It’s interesting that Strauss gives quite a prominent role for the orchestral horns in the concerto and their dialogue with Dutch towards the end of the first movement was nicely done. The wistful second movement is somewhat reminiscent of music from Der Rosenkavalier and Dutch was once again mellifluous here. The rondo final movement is a great test of agility for the soloist with its tricky leaps and jumps and complex rhythmic dovetailing with the orchestra. After the briefest of awkward starts Dutch and the orchestra gave us a delightful romp through this fun music, finishing with a tremendous flourish.

It is often argued that Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor, one of his finest achievements, is his most serious work in the genre but I would wager that proponents of such a view have not spent much time listening to his first three – not too many people do. Certainly, of the symphonies most often performed, it does not possess the sunny character of the Fifth and Sixth, the quirky originality of the Eighth nor the outright folksy-ness of the Ninth. It is likely that Dvořák was under the influence of his friend, Brahms, at the time the Seventh was composed and the mastery of symphonic argument supports this.

Chauhan’s interpretation was, in many ways, fresh and invigorating. He plotted a swift course through the first movement, driving us headlong into the symphony’s turbulence without flinching. The now larger orchestra’s sound was full but also thrillingly muscular. Horns were admirable throughout, particularly in their repeated note ‘machine gun’ passages in the first and last movements. There were, however, moments when the music felt too hard-driven, such as the accelerando (marked poco a poco in the score) in the coda of the first movement and throughout the second movement, where more time and space would have been welcome. I doubt I’ve heard the scherzo third movement more excitingly done, though: an ideal tempo, unfussy opening and fantastic timpani playing. Chauhan and the orchestra nicely realised the dance elements in the delightful second subject of the restless finale and brought the symphony to a close without holding back.  

***11