CBSO/Nelsons – Mozart

Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Flute Concerto in G, K313
Requiem, K626

Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute)

Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano), Wendy Dawn Thompson (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor) & Benedict Nelson (baritone)

CBSO Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 20 November, 2010
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Pace Robert Levin – whose completion of Mozart’s “Requiem” is fascinating in its way – the very familiarity of that of Franz-Xaver Süssmayr has a comforting factor which means it will surely never be superseded. The surprise in Andris Nelsons’s performance of the work was that the CBSO Chorus was at awesome strength, with over 170 voices, an old-style approach where a bit of gentle culling might have been expected. If there was an occasional suspicion of overload, on the plus side, the control and precision inculcated by chorus-master Julian Wilkins was never in doubt. Nelsons’s ability to mould the sound of his wonderful CBSO musicians at will is already the stuff of legend; but the same clearly pertains to the chorus too. The degree of pianissimo he got the singers to achieve was remarkable, with a positively Beethovenian force to the sforzato surges and the contrasting quiet moments.

There was often a distinctly operatic feel to Nelsons’s interpretation, a reminder of his early experience with the Latvian National Opera, first as a trumpeter and as its music director from 2003 to 2007. From the very opening there was a dark, underlying tension which, over the course of the work, periodically erupted with a turbulent intensity. It was not simply a question of the D minor tonality and parallels with the score of “Don Giovanni”: the ‘Dies Irae’ in particular stood out for its almost Verdian passion, with blazing natural trumpets and a kettledrum sound which was both thrilling and terrifying. Satisfying in an altogether different way was Nelsons’s sculpting of the long phrasing – as in the ‘Lachrimosa’ – underlining the intrinsic beauty of Mozart’s cantabile lines, both instrumental and vocal.

The line-up of soloists was impressive, each singer bringing characteristic timbre and colour to their solos while blending beautifully as a quartet. In the ‘Tuba Mirum’, Benedict Nelson followed the introductory trombone’s mellow tone with equal aplomb, with Andrew Kennedy’s fearless delivery of ‘Mors stupebit’ giving the phrase a startling immediacy. All four soloists realised the intimacy of the ‘Recordare’, with Sarah-Jane Brandon and Wendy Dawn Thompson coming into their own in the ‘Benedictus’. There looked to be slight frustration that they didn’t have sight of Nelsons – his podium being positioned deeper into the orchestra than they might have liked – but, with Nelsons shepherding them protectingly, ensemble was never a problem. Whatever doubts one had initially about the size of the chorus were completely dispelled in the final ‘Lux Aeterna’ and the return of the fugal ‘Kyrie’: with the music now coming full-circle, the rationale for the larger choir felt to have been vindicated, with the defining emotional tenor of the piece always carefully balanced with the drama. The moments when the last chord hung in the air seemed to say it all: Symphony Hall took on the aura and grandeur of a cathedral and one could not fail to be moved.

Programming works to precede the “Requiem” is always tricky and here the combination of the ‘Haffner’ Symphony and the first G major Flute Concerto had its own neat logic. The sunny optimism of the ‘Haffner’ (D major) provided the perfect counterbalance to “Requiem” (D minor); and while there is sometimes a degree of disparagement of the symphony’s origins as a serenade, Nelsons paid it the compliment of taking it seriously. He made the opening phrase sound fresh and new, with the lower note of its trademark leap subtly weighted and the higher note bouncing away with the lightest of touches. It is this astute weighting of melodic lines so that something very familiar can sound newly-minted and beguiling in an utterly different way that consistently marks Nelsons’s performances and makes for such a compelling experience. Any notion that the ‘Haffner is rather a dull piece was totally dispelled here. Interest was engagingly sustained throughout; the finale – always the most complex, but often sounding out of balance with the others – was intricately worked so as to emerge as a proper culmination of the whole.

Marie-Christine Zupancic – CBSO principal flautist – was the highly accomplished and serene soloist in the concerto. Her tone was pure and elegantly expressive throughout her range, with each note – even in the fastest passagework – articulated so as to be meaningful. Zupancic delivered coolly virtuosic cadenzas, but even more striking was the way in which she invested the sections in the minor mode with a heart-wrenching beauty. This depth of feeling in turn allowed the flowing lyricism of the finale to assume added grace. A ‘magic flute’ concerto indeed.

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