The second of the BSO’s two London concerts began with Haydn’s Symphony no. 90 in C major. While in the opening movement there might occasionally have been cleaner horn sounds and a more rounded oboe tone there was no doubt about Andris Nelsons’ clear and invigorating direction. Perhaps supervision might be a more appropriate term, since from the Andante onwards there were moments when his left hand just rested motionless on the podium or, batonless, when he merely indicated to players when individuals were in the limelight. One such moment, in one of many chamber-style passages, was a winning partnership between flute and violins where their faultless musicianship caught the ear. In the finale, the high point of the entire performance, the violins seemed ablaze with animation with superbly articulated sforzando semiquavers. The work’s false ending was humorously achieved with Nelson jokingly closing the score during the four bars rest before the coda. Always alert and with some wonderfully spontaneous gestures, Nelsons was a joy to watch and appeared to be plugged into the national grid, such was the electrifying stimulus coming from the stand.

Andris Nelsons © BBC | Chris Christodoulou (Prom 49)
Andris Nelsons
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou (Prom 49)

Before the interval the BSO regrouped for Samuel Barber’s Essay no. 2. Written on the eve of the composer’s call up to the US army air force in 1942, and only once previously heard at the proms, the Essay is a colourfully orchestrated work. Its wistful moments, neatly drawn by expressive woodwinds at the outset, were countered by dramatic tensions in which timpani and brass made an impressive impact, and indicated that Barber is more than just an unabashed Romantic. A warm string tone also contributed to a fine, heartfelt performance, the Bostonians clearly at home with one of their own composers.

Nelsons and his players were also very much at home with Shostakovich whose Symphony no. 10 in E minor filled the second half. It’s a work already familiar to the BSO and features in their current European tour where it will be given in Lucerne, Paris and Salzburg. Their recent recording on Deutsche Grammophon (the first in a series under the title Under Stalin’s Shadow) has already received critical acclaim, and so there were high expectations on Sunday afternoon. These were amply fulfilled in a gripping performance, marred only by audience coughing towards the end of the opening Moderato where gentle strings anchor perilously exposed piccolos – and performed here with perfect control. From the opening bars of this emotional roller coaster Nelsons urged forward the first movement’s arch-like structure, shaping its trajectory with absolute certainty.

The orchestra had yet to unleash its full power but when they did in the frenzied Allegro the sense of venom was breathtaking: percussion and brass were thrilling, and the strings, determinedly crisp, produced just the right tonal bite. Muscular energy was there in spades. Fine solo contributions from horn, violin and assorted woodwind were heard in the Allegretto where Shostakovich’s initials (DSCH) were tellingly triumphant in a snarling più mosso section. It was with elation and triumph that this great emotional journey closed, with Nelsons proving to be an inspirational champion for the composer. Ecstatic applause from a near full auditorium brought another slice of Shostakovich – the rousing Galop from his 1958 operetta Cheryomuschki. This was a memorable concert with many outstanding moments.

****1