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Concert Review

The CBSO in Paris

Hélène Grimaud, piano
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 15-16 March 2014

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and their Music Director Andris Nelsons took up residence for a weekend at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Joined by pianist Hélène Grimaud and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, their two concerts focused on Johannes Brahms (his first Piano Concerto and his Violin Concerto) but also offered some magnificent 20th-century ballet music from Igor Stravinsky and Serge Prokofieff.

The much-touted Andris Nelsons has been Music Director in Birmingham since 2008 and will head the Boston Symphony Orchestra starting from the 2014/2015 season. The 35-year old Latvian maestro is often mentioned as one of the most inspiring and charismatic musicians of his generation. His tenure in Birmingham has by most accounts developed into a golden age for the orchestra and the British classical music scene in general, involving recording projects, extensive touring and much critical acclaim.

And yet, in Paris the big thrill didn't happen. (If anyone should take the prize for the most memorable performance in these two days it would have to be Anne-Sophie Mutter.) True, as is obvious to anyone, Nelsons created a fantastic rapport with this orchestra. The chemistry between conductor and musicians is undeniable and it makes the sense of loss in Birmingham caused by his nearing departure to Boston all the more understandable.

It is also undeniable, however, that some of the disappointment of these Paris concerts resulted from musical choices by Nelsons, while the CBSO, regardless of the level achieved in recent years, struck here as relatively faceless. All the orchestral sections were solid, yet any distinctive, individual qualities, a characteristic sonority, which could hoist them to the level of orchestras like the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Symphony, or the top European formations, was absent.

Andris Nelsons developed a very physical and theatrical conducting style, which is bound to divide audiences. Now with wildly semaphoric arms, then crouching on the edge of the rostrum, leaning over dangerously close to a front desk, if he isn't shaking his legs. And then most of us don't see his facial expressions. As his mentor Mariss Jansons he sometimes stops beating time, holding the baton in his left hand to shape the music with the other. Still, in the end it's the music that matters. He seems quite focused on bringing out every orchestral detail and in most cases he does. You are bound to hear different things in familiar scores, although not everything falls into the right place yet and in his enthusiasm the danger of losing the big thread is lurking.

The romanticism of the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto was in Nelsons hands painted alternatively with a heavy broom and with a pinpoint brush. Midtones didn't seem to belong there. It was Stürm und Drang, muscular, loud and often too aggressive for its own good. Hélène Grimaud's piano initially sounded like a sunburst within a dark-clouded sky, yet unfortunately pretty soon sweep and urgency gave way to ponderousness and affectation. The French pianist admitted her personal affinity with the music of Brahms repeatedly, and recently she recorded both piano concertos with Nelsons for the DG label, albeit with other orchestras than the CBSO. There is no doubt that she feels the music in a highly personal way. But bringing that over doesn't always work. To some extent Grimaud seemed to concur with Nelsons by a constant search for a beefy sound, but less so with his care for detail. The melodic lines didn't stand much of a chance with her pushing and pulling, and her habit to start panting as soon as the music slows down a few bars grows weary quickly. The Adagio was still riddled with rough edges in the orchestra and emphatic rather than poetic in the piano part, but the final movement gained tremendous momentum by Grimaud's impulsive playing.

The orchestra made a much stronger impression in Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka (in its 1947 revision), yet even so while overtly spectacular and boasting some excellent solo work, it was far from revelatory either. Nelsons never made it clear where he wanted to go with this traversal. Some passages retained plenty of theatrical flavor, yet most were nothing more than an orchestral display. Analytical and meticulous in an almost Boulez-like manner, Nelsons demonstrated his grip on the orchestra, but often forgot to tell the story.

For example, the flute melody accompanying the appearance of the Charlatan in the 1st Scene was pretty but lacked this mysterious, beguiling tone which attracts in the ballet the crowd to his puppet show. The successive scenes in Petrushka's and the Moor's room were on the other hand well characterized, but Petrushka's despair when finding the ballerina flirting with the Moor was dramatically underplayed, in spite of the obvious orchestral brilliance. It's not that Nelsons didn't care for the theatrical side of the work – his histrionics on the rostrum made that quite clear, even imitating to hilarious effect the flowing movements of the Wet Nurses or the foot-stomping of the Coachmen in the 4th Scene – yet in spite of all some passages failed to make the proper impact. The 4th Scene (The Shrove-tide Fair) was by far the most successful, with a well handled buildup, an energetic drive and a well-handled orchestral balance. Then again, the death of Petrushka went almost unnoticed and the trumpets marking the appearance of his ghost simply weren't piercing enough to startle.

The second evening opened with Don Juan from Richard Strauss. As was to be expected Nelsons presented Strauss's dashing hero with great vivacity and volume. Detailed and transparent, the CBSO was totally responsive, and while not entirely free of some calculation in the buildup, the climaxes topped by the brass and timpani resonated with great power. Yet I didn't expect Nelsons to slacken that much during the tender passages. The very broad tempo he applied to the central love section didn't quite convince and needlessly taxed the musicians, the principal oboe in particular, while the transition to the second big theme sounded brusque (albeit featuring superb unison horns). The eerie outcome was then again wonderfully handled, a heart-stopping moment indeed, only spoiled on the very last chord by a slip in the ensemble.

Outstanding musicians can work magic it seems. Something like this happened in the Brahms Violin Concerto performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter. As soon as Mutter cut in she gently took command and conductor and orchestra followed her as if mesmerized. The CBSO never played better on these two evenings than here.

Mutter has technical skill to spare and while she added plenty of personal touches, not least in her phrasing, there was no trace of showiness, except perhaps in the gypsy-flavored finale, where her ritenuto at the end of the main theme – echoed by the orchestra – was easily forgiven, even if this could grow old quickly in a recording. For the most part though the music flowed with ravishing ease, warm and pure, blending genuine lyricism with full-blooded passion with a sure hand, and nowhere more poignantly so as in the Adagio, where the principal oboe, still slightly hesitant in the preceding Strauss, surpassed himself. Mutter's entrance in this beautifully prepared canvas would in itself have been worth the price of admission – tender, intensely poetic – it couldn't have been further away from Grimaud the day before. Mutter gratified with two Bach encores.

Finally, Prokofieff's Romeo and Juliet was something of a mixed bag. For one thing, the selection started with a homemade medley I never suspected to hear anymore in a concert-hall today. It's more than a question of purism, but Prokofieff left us no less than three suites compiling tracks from his ballet. If they don't care to play them completely, musicians have the choice to pick out selections from the suites. Why someone still finds it necessary then to splice the two versions of the Morning Dance from the ballet (Act 1 #4 an Act 2 #30) in an awkward arrangement, is beyond me. Fortunately the rest of the selection didn't go through some arrangers hands, although it was still an odd mix, neither following the narrative of the ballet, nor the succession of any of the suites. Again, Nelsons seemed to opt primarily for an orchestral display. Some passages were beautifully handled, like the passionate Balcony Scene, with a tender solo violin, convincingly textured strings and impressive horns. But there were issues of balance and Nelsons's attention to details showed its limits in the obtrusive winds and a loss of the broad lines (as in The Masks and The Arrival of the Guests). The concluding Death of Tybalt had tremendous speed and power, but also that cheap effect of slowing down these fifteen unisono chords, a practice which is now heard so often in concerts. Spectacular, no doubt, but the state of grace achieved by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov in Romeo and Juliet, in this very same theatre two seasons ago, seemed very far away.

Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman