It should have been Mariss Jansons conducting (resting on doctor’s orders), and Shostakovich’s Tenth. Yannick Nézet-Seguin replaced him and offered the Russian composer’s Fifth instead.
At this Prom, the distinction of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s sound was achieved mainly through absolute precision and enhanced by the immaculate balance obtained by Nézet-Séguin. The challenging acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall was overcome and in the Beethoven detail was heard that rarely reaches the ear in such a large venue. The powerful introduction to Symphony No.2 was succeeded by an Allegro con brio where the quietness of its commencement brought great dramatic tension, and forte and fortissimo passages retained lucidity. Incisive chording gave a sense of anger to Beethoven’s dramatic outbursts and the urgency of the lower strings made for a gripping conclusion. Nézet-Séguin then took an ideal tempo for the Larghetto; the lyrical themes benefit from being moved forward and the woodwind passages that skip cheerfully up and down the scale were ideally light in touch. Dynamic contrasts were a feature of the Scherzo which was lively but not unduly fast. It is a brief movement; therefore it was to its benefit that the repeats of the Scherzo sections were made both before and after the Trio. The Finale was played swiftly and throughout the work the timpani were perfectly balanced and, even when struck softly, the timbre of the instruments remained clear.
In Shostakovich 5 the timpani part takes on an almost solo aspect in the Finale: Stefan Reuter brought excitement to the part. The opening Moderato with its long sequence of mysterious themes was held back quietly and intensely. This meant that after a while the listener could hardly wait for the sudden outburst of threatening brass and aggressive rhythms which subsided eventually to the dark atmosphere with which this movement began. Much has been said about the Scherzo being Mahlerian and here it was more like Mahler than ever, especially in the central section where the concertmaster played very much in Viennese style and the glissando moments in the woodwinds were deliberately (and delightfully) stressed.
One of the notable qualities of the BRSO is its ability to play quietly and in the Largo the strings were superb – withdrawn and gentle yet even when at their softest, absolutely clear. This was a sensitive and shadowy reading, withdrawn; it was a magical moment when the desolate oboe solo was the only sound in a vast hall containing an audience numbered in several thousands. The Finale was a tour de force with superb playing, wide dynamic contrasts and especially thrilling sounds from the brass. There is something of a carnival atmosphere enhanced by the composer’s adventurous use of percussion, realised here with extraordinary clarity, especially when the music moves from its quiet central section to the triumphant(?) conclusion.
What encore could possibly follow this spectacular reading? Nézet-Séguin chose Mussorgsky's atmospheric Dawn over the Moscow River – the Prelude to his opera Khovanshchina, the link being that it was in Shostakovich’s orchestration (there is also one by Rimsky-Korsakov).