The writing of Beethoven’s nine symphonies spanned a quarter of a century, but for this season’s opener, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra offered them all up in the space of less than a week. This came hard on the heels of performing the whole cycle at the annual Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the composer’s home town, with a stopover on the way back for a reprise of the 8th and 9th in Paris.  Such saturation certainly hadn’t dulled the shine for this evening’s 6th and 7th, Andris Nelsons launching his final season in Birmingham, before departure to Boston, with customary vigour and infectious enthusiasm.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Back home in Symphony Hall, however, something was awry with the acclaimed acoustics.  At the close of the joyful first movement of the Pastoral Symphony, full of legato poise, control of tempo and dynamic changes that produced a layered, almost cinematic evocation of the countryside, there was a hiatus while Nelsons could be seen exchanging a few words with the leader.  In the post-movement hush, an audible mechanical hum became more apparent. Nelsons turned round and made an unscheduled plea to the audience: “Can you hear the noise?  I mean, apart from the one we’re making!”  A ripple of nervous laughter.  Then begging our forgiveness – “would you mind ...?” – he left the stage and within a couple of minutes a piece of the technical paraphernalia which dangled aloft was raised flush with the suspended platform of acoustic what-nots. Only when that did the trick and contrasting silence reigned, did mere mortals like me realise what an intrusion it must have been to the well-tuned ears of the maestro and his players.  I sensed a consensus amongst the crowd that he’d acted wisely in interrupting the piece, notwithstanding a certain irony in view of the composer’s increasing deafness at the time of writing these soundscapes.

Returning to the podium, Nelsons announced, in case there should be any doubt: “Second movement!”  Another ripple of laughter and we were off again into the twists and turns of “Scenes by a brook”, the strings creating a serene, calming effect, with changes of mood marking the varying stages of the stream’s progress.  Against the backdrop of strings, lovely woodwind birdsong punctuated the fresh clean air. There followed a stark change in meteorological conditions with the drama of a thunderstorm, prefaced by ominous bass rumblings and pattering raindrops in the violins. The general rumpus of the full-blown storm featured the excitement of excellent brass and – a stroke of Beethoven’s genius – upward figures on lower strings at variable speeds, producing a blurred, somewhat disorientating effect. Nelsons, clearly in control of this apparent mayhem, virtually threw the thunder, javelin-fashion, at charismatic timpanist Matthew Perry.

The colours of sunshine returned to draw the symphony to a close, via repetitions of familiar themes and emotional dynamics. The “happy, thankful feelings” of this movement’s title summed it up perfectly. There’s something life-affirming about the Pastoral, and I would gladly have listened to it all again.

Symphony No. 7 was written when Beethoven had been suffering from ill health and depression. Recommended to spend the summer of 1811 in the spa town of Teplitz, a peaceful spot in troubled times, he certainly demonstrated no loss of creativity, his stay proving the catalyst for not only the 7th Symphony but also the 8th and 9th. Luckily the intensity of this and recent weeks’ music-making apparently hadn’t adversely affected the CBSO’s energy levels, as the 7th Symphony is laden with muscular dance rhythms, manic fury and grand themes requiring dynamism in every sense.  Nelsons’ conducting style tended towards the minimalist at times, often hinging on facial expressions and his relative proximity to the players, yet he drew out every nuance of emotionally-charged strings, navigating their way through the madcap momentum of the long-short-short rhythmic pattern. The central Presto section stole the show, if the swaying of my neighbours was any indication, but just when you thought it couldn’t get any more dramatic the full orchestra went full-tilt at the finale’s dual, unprecedented fff climaxes.

The audience’s noisy appreciation extended to many curtain calls and spoke volumes for the affection and regard in which Andris Nelsons has increasingly been held during his outstanding 6-year tenure.  This is set to be a bitter-sweet season for concertgoers in Birmingham.