When presenting one of Richard Strauss’ lesser known tone poems, it helps to have the composer’s greatest living interpreter in total command of an orchestra on top form. And so it was with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Symphonia Domestica under Andris Nelsons.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

It was another of Strauss’s tone poems (Don Juan) in which Nelsons first demonstrated his affinity for the composer and established himself as the orchestra’s first choice for music director back in 2008. He is now in the process of recording a complete cycle of the tone poems with the orchestra. There is no doubt that Nelsons is able to conjure pure magic in this repertoire – he somehow becomes the music and even his crudest gestures evoke a most unanimous and convincing response from the orchestra.

Not one to shy away from self-portraits, Strauss followed up his autobiographical and fantastical epic Ein Heldenleben with a rather more mundane depiction of his home life in the Symphonia Domestica. The composer, his wife (Pauline) and his baby (Franz) all get their own leitmotifs (the former having the proudest of them all, of course). This performance was enhanced by surtitles gently informing the audience of the events occurring throughout the Strauss family’s evening, night and morning. Baby Strauss’s lullaby was gorgeously depicted on the oboe d’amore by Jennifer Galloway while his shrill cries were illustrated with brilliant woodwind trills and piercing trumpet notes.

The first part of the piece has the character of a first class cartoon soundtrack and every detail was vividly realised by the orchestra, the E flat clarinet playing by Joanna Patton being a real highlight. The CBSO strings were at their sumptuous best in the rather more adult-themed central love scene, in which it is clear that baby Franz is well and truly asleep. Nelsons encouraged a glorious tutti sound from the orchestra both here and in Strauss’ preposterously grandiloquent coda. I found myself marvelling at the spectacle of Strauss’ riotously colourful score, which is too clever by half in the hilarious double fugue ‘quarrel’ scene. I doubt I’ll ever hear this more convincingly done .

The Shakespeare-themed first half of the concert was scarcely less impressive. Nelsons led a deft account of Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, full of forward momentum. Again, delightful details of orchestration were to the fore, such as a nicely prominent tuba part. Bottom’s equine antics were amusingly characterised by Nelsons, who wisely did not allow any interruption to the flow of the music.

Barbara Hannigan © Elmer de Haas
Barbara Hannigan
© Elmer de Haas

Nelsons and the CBSO were then joined by Canadian soprano, Barbara Hannigan, for the UK première of Hans Abrahamsen’s dramatic monologue, let me tell you. The work is a setting of author, Paul Griffiths’ re-crafting of words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Griffiths’ own words: “She has the same words, her entire text being made up from words Ophelia speaks in the play, but she uses these words in different ways, and certainly to express herself differently”.

What was so fascinating about Abrahamsen’s setting was not so much the words themselves but the way in which they were sung: single syllables were frequently repeated and oscillated. Hannigan achieved this effect so artlessly that this style of singing could have been written for her. The contrasting movements are inventively orchestrated for a large ensemble. The piece opened with piccolos and celesta and featured sparkling tuned percussion, including a glockenspiel that was both struck and bowed. The subject matter of the text was often matched by explicit evocations in the orchestra. For example, “showers of light” was accompanied by high wind and string harmonics, whilst “light that cannot end” featured an impossibly sustained chord fading away to nothing.

I was not prepared for how desperately sad the final movement, “I will go out now”, would feel. Sinewy, descending chromatic passages in the orchestra evoked the falling snow described in the song whilst microtonal tuning only added to the sense of desolation. Emotionally, it left me in a similar place to, say, the closing pages of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde or Strauss’s Four Last Songs. That, for me at least, is a measure of this fascinating work’s success and I hope to hear it again before long.