Tout un monde lointain …
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1880 version]
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 June, 2010
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Solihull-born and Worcestershire-bred, Jonathan Nott is certainly a ‘local boy’ in terms of Birmingham musicians (and not the first to have built his reputation abroad) so it was good to see him making his belated debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony – in a programme, moreover, that reflected his commitment to post-war music as well to as the Austro-German symphonic repertoire.
Over the last decade, Henri Dutilleux’s select handful of major works has increasingly found its way to mainstream acceptance – chief among them being the cello concerto written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1970. Both its subtitle and the movement headings reflect the pervasive if subliminal influence of Henri Baudelaire, the music inhabiting similarly refined yet often impulsive terrain. Qualities which were well to the fore in this account from Jean-Guihen Queyras, who had the measure of the second and fourth sections’ rapt contemplation; as he did that of the first’s gradual accumulation of momentum and the final one’s swift gathering of motifs for a typically understated conclusion. Only the third section, somewhere between scherzo and intermezzo in its deftly propelled energy, failed to tale wing in a performance that revelled in the luminous sonorities of the orchestral writing and interplay with the soloist that was evidently one of equals. Hopefully this most thoughtful and resourceful of present-day cellists will return to Symphony Hall and soon.
Although he has latterly been working his way through Mahler’s symphonies (notably with one of the best Ninth’s of recent years), Nott is equally at home in Bruckner and anyone who heard his fine readings of the Third and Ninth symphonies in Edinburgh some years ago with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra will doubtless have recognised the same virtues of clarity and coherence in this account of the Fourth Symphony. Not that this should imply an absence of weight or gravitas in his conception (at 69 minutes, there was no lack of spaciousness) – eloquently unfolding what is perhaps Bruckner’s most Classically-conceived first movement (horn-player Elspeth Dutch not infallible in her initial entry, but hardly putting a foot wrong thereafter), not least by paying unusually close attention to those transitions through which Bruckner opens-out and so intensifies his sonata-form dynamism. The second movement, too, was perfectly poised between its underlying slowness and that often-distant yet continually motivating processional which results in one of its composer’s most finely achieved perorations; not least in the present performance, precisely weighted and with tension kept on a tight but never inflexible rein.
The ‘Romantic’ has recently seen unexpected activity in terms of the edition used, with the 1874 original version having gained a measure of acceptance (Daniel Harding’s account with the LSO), and even the long-discredited 1888 revision coming in from the cold (courtesy of Osmo Vänskä). Nott, however, opted for the composite revision completed in 1880 with its uncut ‘Hunt’ scherzo and its overly ambitious finale. The former was invested with tensile energy, Nott unafraid to point up the rustic simplicity of its trio, while the latter emerged here as an unusually integrated design – its amiable secondary themes and protracted transitions only rarely threatening to undermine the equilibrium of a movement whose opening and closing pages (also the surging passage at the heart of its development) are among Bruckner’s finest inspirations. Those who feel the composer got the finale almost right, albeit very differently, first time round would have been given pause for thought as – for once – the coda emerged naturally out of the fractured reprise preceding it, and how good to hear that final climax without the addition of the work’s opening ‘motto’ to overstate the obvious.
A persuasive performance, then, of a far from unproblematic work and an auspicious first encounter between conductor and orchestra. Nott takes the CBSO to Aldeburgh for a wide-ranging programme later during this week: hopefully this visit to ‘home territory’ will prove to be only the first of many.