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Lucky Birmingham

02/04/2009 -  & February 5, 6, 2009
Ludwig van Beethoven : Piano Concerto No. 5, opus 73
Richard Strauss : Ein Heldenleben, opus 40

Nelson Freire (piano)
Tonhalle Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor)

A five-year old boy was taken by his parents to a performance of Tannhäuser. He wept uncontrollably with joy afterwards and could not sleep. The little boy was Latvian-born Andris Nelsons who conducted this Tonhalle concert. That clearly demonstrates the emotions and musicality already burgeoning in one so young. His talents have been spotted by the powers that be in Bayreuth and he will be conducting his first Wagner there next summer.

On stage he displays command, has a very clear sense of them music’s architecture and momentum, clear technique, the ability to display many layers of detail, coupled with seemingly limitless energy. What more does a young conductor need?

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has secured Nelsons as their new Principal Conductor to replace the outgoing Sakari Oramo, who himself followed none other than Simon Rattle. Birmingham has a sure touch in these matters and can consider themselves very lucky.

Nelsons is moved and energised by the music he conducts and so it was with the “Emperor” Concerto, the soloist being the Brazilian Nelson Freire. Freire first played the concerto at the age of twelve and it has clearly got under his skin; he clearly relished every phrase. Nelsons verily stabbed the opening vast chords of the Allegro before Freire followed with his controlled outburst of virtuosity. Nelsons shaped the contemplative string opening of the brief slow movement with extreme tenderness, Freire allowed to rest between the dynamic outer movements, playing with touching simplicity. The Rondo got off to an explosive start, it was good to hear the timpanist on period drums and be startled by the thwacks of wooden sticks. The final Allegro was both fiery and forceful and proceeded to a joyous conclusion.

The second half of the concert was given over to Ein Heldenleben, a work which really gives an orchestra a chance to show its prowess in all departments. Nelsons has been studying privately with fellow Latvian Mariss Jansons since 2002 and Ein Heldenleben is a piece Jansons adores. It also allowed Nelsons to shine; he beamed, he leapt in the air and conducted like one possessed. And that’s more or less how the orchestra played too. The principal Hero theme soared majestically to open the work and set the scene. Nelsons skilfully gauged the dynamics as the themes intertwined, giving full vent to blazing brass whenever needed. The Hero’s adversaries were properly chromatic and angular, the woodwind section relishing the chance to play with plenty of rough edge.

The tender and blissful violin melody in the section “The Hero’s Companion” was finely played by Andreas Janke and kept the audience rapt. Janke has taken over as Leader from Primoz Novsak who retired recently after 27 years with the orchestra.

The battlefield was depicted with the full force of the ever pervasive percussion and perfectly placed off-stage trumpet fanfares. Nelsons was impressively militaristic in style. After the Hero’s victory was celebrated by quotes from Till Eulenspiegel, Zarathustra, Don Juan and Don Quixote we entered “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation”. After the cacophony and anguish, Nelsons allowed the music to relax but not linger excessively and brought out all the beauty of the elegiac and distinctly pastoral passages before bringing the work to its solemn close. A Heldenleben to savour.

John Rhodes



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