CBSO/Nelsons – Tod und Verklärung & Also sprach Zarathustra – Stephen Hough plays Rachmaninov

Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

Stephen Hough (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 12 January, 2012
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Andris Nelsons. Photograph: Marco BorggreveBy now Symphony Hall audiences are primed: CBSO concerts under music director Andris Nelsons are electric affairs. On this occasion, expectation was heightened, the concert live on BBC Radio 3 and being recorded by Orfeo to add to the much-lauded Strauss discs already issued.

Expectation was rewarded with stunning opening to Tod und Verklärung: the death-bed scene was evoked with reverence yet tinged with a mysterious aura of the great unknown; woodwind phrases hovered gently in the air, the quality of the CBSO string-playing simply breathtaking. Nelsons then launched headlong into the Allegro molto agitato, where life pits itself against death, with blazing ferocity. The players responded with precision and the brass excelled in the transfiguration theme bringing an elegant legato upward sweep and transcendent glow. The placing and internal balance of Strauss’s evocative harmonies was also impeccably controlled by Nelsons, drawing the listener deep into the heart of the music.

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaThe prospect of Stephen Hough and Nelsons, two such super-sensitive musicians, performing Rachmaninov was also enticing. The First may not be the best of the concertos, but Hough argued most persuasively for its special qualities: vividly configured passagework, blazing cadenzas, tender melodic writing. Hough countered passion with poetic delineation, superlative technical delivery matched by the total clarity with which he made the ideas unfold. Nelsons instinctively found the dramatic logic of the instrumental writing, matching Hough in finesse and power, so that the outer movements realised the most subtle rubato and sympathetic dovetailing of soloist and orchestra. The music could not have had stronger vindication. As an encore, Hough – in a typically astute choice – played an early piece by Richard Strauss, Traümerei: dreamy, rhapsodic and beautifully poised.

Symphony Hall might have been conceived to embrace the glorious opening of Also sprach Zarathustra: the rumbling double basses, the clarion trumpets, the savage timpani hammer-blows, the sumptuous reverberating and seemingly endless C major chord. Nelsons’s expansive gestures suggested not simply the power of the moment but the ultimate trajectory of the whole piece, Strauss’s take on Nietzsche.

Part of Nelsons’s art is to exact rock-solid discipline while creating perfect conditions for expressive freedom – spontaneous, joyous, rampant. The immediacy of this interpretation was totally absorbing, the CBSO players offering notable solos: Christopher Yates’s viola leading to the section headed ‘Of the Great Longing’, Gretha Tuls’s bassoon solo emerging from the clamour of the ‘Song of the Night Wanderer’ to mention but two. Throughout, there was a vibrant energy, with the fluctuating elements – musical and philosophical – carefully plotted to create a sense of organic growth. It lifted the music to an exalted realm, making the question-marks at the end an intrinsic part of the ultimate business and infinite wonder of life. The long silence seemed to hold us all.

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