Traditionally at the Proms, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is reserved for the penultimate Prom slot in September, but this year, they have made an exception and given it to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its outgoing Music Director Andris Nelsons who marked their final concert with this masterpiece. No doubt it must have been an emotional performance for both Nelsons and the orchestra – he conducted with characteristic passion and unflagging energy and the orchestra were in glorious form, demonstrating Nelsons’ achievement during his leadership.

Margaret Cookhorn © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Margaret Cookhorn
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

They began the concert in sparkling form, injecting such energy into Beethoven’s five-minute lightweight overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, that they made it sound quite substantial. Opening with a series of explosive but resonant chords, Nelsons shaped the slow introduction with care, followed by an vivid and joyous Allegro molto.

Sandwiched between the two Beethoven works was the London première of Falling Down – “a capricho for double bassoon and orchestra” by John Woolwich. Originally a CBSO commission (premiered in 2009), it was composed for the orchestra’s contrabassoon player Margaret Cookhorn who was the soloist here too. I wondered if they had programmed this piece because of the use of the instrument in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, one of the earliest examples of the contrabassoon in an orchestral work.

The work is compact and tightly constructed around the rather restricted range and ability of the solo instrument. It is framed by two lively outer sections, in which the various wind and brass instruments of the orchestra form an ascent followed by a descent to the depths where the contrabassoon lives (hence “Falling Down” of the title). In the more lyrical middle section, the contrabassoon is in playful dialogue with various instruments. Overall, the orchestration is effective, in particular the brass writing as well as the Nielsen-like battle of the two sets of timpani, and the players seemed to relish the score. But whether it was able to highlight the solo instrument is debatable, mainly because a lot of the time either I couldn’t hear the soloist or its sound seemed to come from a different part of the stage from where the soloist was placed (probably because of the quirky acoustics of the Albert Hall). The work may have worked better in the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, but the soloist seemed rather lost in this space.

Andris Nelsons © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Andris Nelsons
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Expectation was high for Nelsons’ Beethoven Ninth, and he and the CBSO certainly gave an intense and impassioned performance, although personally I wasn’t convinced by all of his interpretative decisions. High praise goes to various individuals including the timpani for his punchy contributions in the second movement, the sublime solo horn in the third movement, excellent woodwind ensemble, and the eloquent cellos and double basses in the in the fourth movement. One quality I especially admire in Nelsons’ conducting is his ability to achieve transparency of texture even in a dense orchestral work and here too, he succeeded in bringing out the contrapuntal features of Beethoven’s writing, particularly effective in the first movement with its motivic complexity. Nelsons took the opening movement unhurriedly, focusing more on the longer, linear phrasing rather than the underpinning harmonic tensions.

The second movement was swift and breezy, in fact too breezy so that the scherzo section lost some of its earthiness, and the contrast between the scherzo and the trio became blurred. Here too, Nelsons took the music in longer phrases, moving the music forward, but so mellifluously that the timpani interjections felt too abrupt. It was elegantly played, with some interesting attention to detail, but was this the “Affekt” Beethoven intended in this movement?

Elegant cantabile playing was certainly intended in the sublime Adagio movement and indeed there was beautiful playing especially by the woodwind and the violins. Nelsons took a decidedly Romantic approach and he micro-managed and shaped every single melody out of sheer enthusiasm, but I felt he pulled around the tempo too much (even in the first clarinet entry at the beginning was delayed for effect). In fact, throughout the work, there were some dynamic contrasts and ritardandi that seemed exaggerated.

The work regained momentum in the final movement, joined by the excellent CBSO Chorus and a harmonious vocal quartet of Lucy Crowe, Gerhild Romberger, Pavel Černoch and Kostas Smoriginas. The opening recitatives by the cellos and basses were fluent and eloquent, as was Smoriginas’ solo entry “O Freude”. Interestingly, in the Alla marcia section, Nelsons avoided bombast, taking a lighter approach and making sure the tenor could be heard over the choral forces. In the vocal quartet, Lucy Crowe’s soprano soared and her top B was spectacular. Nelsons controlled and inspired the massed forces and at one point in the first choral climax of “Freude schöner Götterfunken”, he seemed to turn around to the audience as if to say “join us!”. All in all, it was a warm, passionate and lyrical performance – if lacking a little in interpretative depth – to close CBSO's magnificent chapter with Nelsons.

****1