Philharmonia Orchestra/Andris Nelsons – Till Eulenspiegel & Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – Arabella Steinbacher plays Berg

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Arabella Steinbacher (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 March, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Andris Nelsons. Photograph: Marco BorggreveFamiliar as all these works are, their coming-together here made for a very attractive matinee concert. In Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Andris Nelsons ducked and dived to create a cartoon-strip of a performance, vivid, witty and pulsating, played with dash and brilliance, and as delicate as it was dynamic and dramatic.

Arabella Steinbacher. ©Robert VanoVery different sentiments are expressed in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), his final music and a requiem for Manon, deceased 18-year-old daughter of Alma (Mahler) and Walter Gropius – “to the memory of an angel”. Balance and interaction were impeccable and significant as Arabella Steinbacher and Nelsons delved into the complexities of this wonderful piece – as potent, poignant and powerful as it is rigorous. Mood-swings were unerringly registered yet without harming Berg’s immaculate structures; and whether chamber-music intimate or full-on powerful (the orchestra is large and includes a saxophone), Berg’s painstaking attention to scoring was caressed and placed just-so in order that every detail registered as important. The final transcendence was rapt and moving – an emotional exorcism – the spellbinding closing pages faded to a long-held silence. Although encores are ten-a-penny these days, Steinbacher’s performance warranted one; given Berg’s cribbing of Bach in the concerto’s latter stages, a movement from an unaccompanied Partita or a Sonata would have been welcome and appropriate.

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony started promisingly, expressively moulded by Nelsons with a big unmarked if traditional rallentando. And then he speeded up, such briskness merely knocking the notes into place and never revealing Beethoven’s “happy feelings”. The loss of the exposition repeat, which can convince, could only be heard as parsimonious. ‘Scene by the Brook’ moved to a sometimes-too-strong current, occasionally revealing greater poise and nicely pointed rhythms; beguiling birdsong aside, the result was unsettled, the music zigzagging from the picturesque to something incongruously restless. Then Nelsons’s rapaciously fast tempo left the dancing peasants breathless, and possibly with a few twisted ankles, the repeat unwanted and dwarfing further the first movement. This hectic, hyper approach was better suited to the ensuing ‘Storm’ – but by now Nelsons had stolen his own thunder – and the ‘Thanksgiving’ finale, however spaciously serene in its opening, soon became forced in pace and volume; benedictory moments were wallowed in. This was a ‘Pastoral’ Symphony imposed upon rather than illuminated from within. For all that the playing was committed, keen and drilled, the impression was of music externally pressured, Beethoven’s vision of paradise misplaced and disconnected.

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