CBSO/Andris Nelsons Håkan Hardenberger

Der Rosenkavalier – Suite
… miramondo multiplo … [UK premiere]
Fratres [Version for strings and percussion]
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 March, 2008
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Andris NelsonsConcerts by chief conductors-elect are always fascinating for what they reveal about the conductor in question. Few who were present will have forgotten Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Tenth Symphony during the spring of 1980 – just a few months before embarking on his 18-year tenure – and there was a comparable sense of anticipation about this present concert, in which Andris Nelsons appeared at the helm of the orchestra prior to him becoming Music Director in September (succeeding Sakari Oramo).

Nor was the programme a ‘soft option’ either in terms of content or in the readiness of its appeal. As a former trumpeter, Nelsons may well have been attracted by the idea of featuring a concerto for his instrument, and there could be no-one better to champion it than Håkan Hardenberger. Interesting, too, that the composer was once a trumpet player. Forty this year, Olga Neuwirthis securely among the leading composers of her generation and the present work leaves no doubt as to her understanding of the trumpet, or of how to place it to advantage within a concerto.

The title, made-up Italian for what might translate along the lines of ‘… multiple world-views …’, falls into five distinct movements whose titles have allegorical as well as evocative overtones. Thus ‘Aria of the angel’ places the soloist – playing piccolo trumpet – in direct confrontation with an orchestra rich in wind and percussive textures, before the tension gradually subsides to a point from where the expressive languor of ‘Aria of memory’ (with its allusions to ‘cool jazz’) is made possible. ‘Aria of cold blood’ is a biting, sardonic scherzo in which the soloist becomes locked into a morass of orchestral ostinatos; whereas ‘Aria of peace’ proceeds as a rapt monologue for trumpet against a haze of string harmonies, then ‘Aria of pleasure’ ends the work with its dynamic interplay between piccolo trumpet and ensemble – focussing on a trio with the orchestral trumpets before the brusque solo pay-off.

Håkan Hardenberger. Photograph: hakanhardenberger.comWhatever else, … miramondo multiplo … is a significant addition to a repertoire in whose expansion Hardenberger has played a crucial role, and there was no doubting either his commitment or that of the CBSO – responding with alacrity to Nelsons who, like his mentor Mariss Jansons, is clearly no meanaccompanist. Soloist and conductor returned for an encore in the guise of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, which here sounded moodier than ever in a highly effective arrangement for trumpet and strings.

The impact of the Neuwirth could have been pre-empted through starting the concert with the Suite – probably arranged by Artur Rodzinski – from “Der Rosenkavalier”. Strauss’s operas are notoriously difficult to condense in this way, but this concoction gives a decent overview of the larger work and does not suffer unduly in those passages where voices have been ‘instrumentalised’. Nelsons fairly powered through the prelude and whipped up the waltz episodes into a near-Ravelian frenzy. If the excerpt from the closing trio lacked something in transcendence, this is as much the fault of the arrangement as the performance, which unfolded with a high degree of coherence.

Contrast again in the concert’s second half that opened with Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in its 1991 version for strings and percussion. From a brief but fruitful period in its composer’s output, when he was blazing a trail rather than merely following in his own footsteps, its classically-proportioned sense of growth and decay, coupled with the austere consistency of its changing timbre and texture, sum up what was positive about his music. Rendered with suitable restraint, Nelsons and the CBSO did it full justice.

The concert ended with Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (1939), a work that the orchestra has given on various occasions (including, memorably, with Jansons back in 1983) and in which Nelsons might be expected to excel. Not that he had things entirely his own way: though the opening Largo opened with impressive gravitas, a tendency to over-emphasis meant that the ensuing climaxes verged on the portentous, while the numerous wind solos seemed a shade over-wrought. Yet the lengthy central span was impressively sustained – with the improvisatory interplay of woodwinds offsetting the stasis – while the close lacked nothing in poignancy. The second-movement Allegro was taken at a tempo flexible enough to encompass both its eruptive outbursts and its subdued denouement, while the final Presto had crispness of articulation and a capricious sense of continuity – culminating in the uproarious high spirits which, whether or not intended to be parody, are at the furthest remove from where the work had begun.

A convincing performance, then, with an orchestral response to confirm the CBSO is looking forward to making music with its incoming Music Director.

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