Aus Italien, Op.16
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
Capriccio Italien, Op.45
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 9 May, 2013
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
Andris Nelsons’s traversal of Richard Strauss’s tone poems here alighted on the earliest and, in terms of hearings, the rarest of them. Hardly the first composer to visit Italy as part of his “liberal education”, Strauss’s sojourn resulted in Aus Italien (1886) – an intriguing synthesis of the symphonic and descriptive and, in consequence, a pivotal work in his evolution.
Although his (Second) Symphony in F minor had previously been well received and praised by none other than Brahms, Strauss clearly felt his calling lay in the symphonic poem. How he got there is the raison d’être of the present piece – its four movements constituting a quirky yet cohesive ‘symphonic fantasy’ while also evoking the places specified. It was in its feeling for this risky fusion that the present account so impressed: Nelsons had the measure of the interplay between illustration and expression in the preludial though by no means introductory ‘On the Campagna’, its slow-burning emotion a foil to the varied and often hectic activity of ‘In the Ruins of Rome’ whose unwieldy sonata design was finely controlled and vividly rendered. Perhaps ‘On the Beach at Sorrento’ could have evinced a little more forward momentum, as this languorously Wagnerian evocation of the Bay of Naples hung fire on occasions, yet there was there no doubting the eloquence of the City of Birmingham Symphony’s response or the fervour generated by Nelsons at the climax; while there was certainly no lack of verve in the finale, ‘Neapolitan Folk-life’, for which Strauss famously mistook Luigi Denza’s hit Funiculì Funiculà as a folk-tune but whose presence here only adds to the fun as the work heads to its effervescent close. If Aus Italien is to return to the repertoire, such a performance can only be to its benefit.
The ‘Italian connection’ held good through the second half – first with an account of Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony (1833) that in itself made what can often seem a symphonic suite more than usually symphonic. The opening Allegro was finely propelled yet with due emphasis on its suave second theme and incisive string playing in the contrapuntal build-up at the start of the development: a pity, though, that Nelsons omitted the exposition repeat – as, with its lengthy transition back to the main theme, this is one of the few such repeats in a Romantic symphony which should be mandatorily observed (hopefully Edward Gardner will do so in his Mendelssohn cycle with this orchestra next season). The second movement brought its twin aspects of marching Pilgrims and capering counterpoint into purposeful accord, while its successor had a poise and elegance befitting this deftest of intermezzos. If the finale could have made more of the rhythmic contrast between its saltarello and tarantella-inflected themes, the onward surge to the A minor close could not have been more unequivocal.
Tchaikovsky has been a mainstay of Nelsons’s concerts with the CBSO, and the present one closed with an account of Capriccio Italien (1880) that made the most of this most overtly pleasurable of its composer’s non-symphonic orchestral works. From the brazen yet not bombastic fanfares and soulful processional, through episodes playful and beguiling, to a driving tarantella which brings about the final peroration – this was a reading that touched upon all of the necessary bases and brought the house down in its thunderous closing pages. Both it and the Strauss will be released in due course on the Orfeo label and rightly so, given that performances this finely attuned will most assuredly stand up to repeated hearings.