A programme featuring both Brahms and Wagner would not have been countenanced in the major Central European cities in the composers’ lifetimes, such was the antipathy that existed between their supporters. The composer Hans Gál, in his biography of Brahms, describes how the Wagner Club in Vienna would stage noisy demonstrations in the standing room of the Musikverein concert hall whenever Brahms’ works were performed.

Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO © Neil Pugh
Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO
© Neil Pugh

Fortunately, there were no such disruptions to Brahms’ Third Symphony in this concert. This is surely radical music in a way that Wagner simply could or would not appreciate. Brahms, perceived by the older composer to be straitjacketed by form, in fact transcended it by freeing himself of the traditional constraints of barlines and somehow making them imperceptible to the listener.

Such mastery was on full display in this performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under their music director Andris Nelsons. This compositional genius inspired the musicians to give of their very best. The strings played with immense warmth; there was not a rough edge to be found. Nelsons moulded the exposition into one long arc. The opening exclamatory chords were fired off without any broadening and sounded almost ecstatic when they were repeated.

The inner movements had the warm glow they should have, and the secret to Nelsons’ winning way with this piece became ever more apparent: Brahms’ music needs to flow without being inpeded, and that is exactly what was allowed to happen in this performance. Nelsons has not always allowed his Brahms to flow in this way before, having tended to massage this phrase and that on previous occasions. In the orchestra, all departments were on tremendous form, but the woodwind players, displaying a creamy tone and huge reserves of unforced expressiveness, really came into their own in these movements.

The epic final movement was pitched at just the right tempo: flowing but with a solid foundation, underpinned by a powerful double bass section that was rightly encouraged throughout. It is only a pity that these players were not integrated centrally in the orchestra, as Brahms would have expected. The central apogee of the movement was thrillingly executed and Nelsons brought the piece to a satisfyingly reflective close. It was pleasing to hear this work at the end of a concert when it is so often relegated to the first half of programmes by less intrepid planners who prefer more triumphant codas.

The concert featured the fascinating juxtaposition of German music played by an English orchestra with an English concerto played by a German soloist. Isabelle Faust has demonstrated her musical intelligence and phenomenal technique in several highly acclaimed recordings of works by Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and Brahms. It was clear from the outset of the Britten Violin Concerto that the technical difficulties in this highly virtuosic work were well within Faust’s abilities; the passages of double-stopping and harmonics, in particular, were dispatched with ease. However, despite this impressive display her performance seemed rather unsettled. I have no problem with soloists playing from music but in this case I wondered if it meant that the concerto was only a recent addition to her repertoire. It certainly felt like Faust was still getting used to it. A planned attacca segue into the second-movement scherzo had to be aborted due to the need to retune a string and, at one point in this movement, the accompaniment briefly came unstuck – not an easy thing to rectify from the conductor’s perspective when beating “in one”.

Nevertheless, Faust’s seriousness of purpose refocused the performance in her terse account of the cadenza. The range of colours that she found even just for the pizzicato passages was really quite captivating and, as the trombones glided into the texture as the Passacaglia final movement began, it was clear that the performance had been building to this moment, the emotional heart of the piece. Faust had selected quite an anguished vibrato from the outset of the concerto, a style that I do not normally associate with her, but it seemed apt in this work (composed in 1939) in which Britten’s feelings about the impending turmoil about to engulf the world become quite apparent. There is some lightness in this movement, such as the Spanish-influenced castanet-like bow ricochets in the strings, but the overall sense is of despair, collapse and resignation.

Faust’s Bach partita encore (the D minor Sarabanda from BWV 1004) found her on much more familiar territory and had the audience held rapt. They were demonstratively appreciative of this most warm and thoughtful musician.

This was all preceded by a serene account of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The composer’s reluctant larger-scale arrangement of his characteristically lavish birthday gift for his wife Cosima was lovingly crafted by Nelsons and the orchestra. However, the beautifully played wind parts were occasionally swamped by the velvety cushion of sound from the relatively large string section. There are perhaps more in the way of darker sonorities to be found in this work, too, that were overlooked in this account.

****1