Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 18th June, 7.30pm
- Ešenvalds Lakes Awake at Dawn, 13′
- Mahler Symphony No. 3, 92′
“Lakes Awake at Dawn is scored for SATB choir and a large orchestra and in this performance played for about 10 minutes. In it Ešenvalds sets some lines by the Latvian poet, Inge Ābele in an English translation to which the composer has appended some words of his own, also in English. The score plays continuously but has two clearly defined sections. In the first, the Ābele setting, the music is tense and powerful, depicting, to paraphrase the composer’s own description, “one’s emotional unrest, anxiety, and physical running away from danger at night in a forest.” Nelsons inspired his combined forces to project this music very strongly, creating a potent atmosphere. Ešenvalds’ own words depict the arrival at the consoling safety of a lake. Here the music becomes hymn-like. The writing for both choir and orchestra has great beauty and is initially tranquil though it gradually builds to a majestic climax, retreating thereafter to a soft consonant orchestral conclusion. The piece has great impact – especially in such a committed performance as this one – and its enthusiastic reception by the audience clearly delighted the composer, who was present. […]
The concluding Adagio opened with wonderfully rapt playing from the CBSO strings; you sensed they were on their collective mettle, determined to deliver one last time for Nelsons – and they did. Nelsons paced the music broadly and generously but though the tempo was expansive there was always a sense that the music was moving forward with purpose: there was a goal in sight. Throughout this movement the orchestra were at the top of their game. Impressive dynamic contrasts were a telling feature of the reading. In the last few minutes there was a true sense that Nelsons was leading his forces to the summit; certainly he drew every last ounce of commitment from the orchestra. He surely knew that the last great D major chord would be followed by an immediate ovation but Nelsons held the moment, his arms aloft, so that no applause intruded until the music had reverberated around the hall and properly died away. Only then did he lower his arms.[…]
During a prolonged standing ovation Nelsons plunged into the ranks of the orchestra; it seemed as if he shook hands with or hugged most of the players on the platform. After several minutes he gave a disarming short farewell speech in which, typically, he stressed two themes: the CBSO family, including its audience, and a strong plea to the people of Birmingham to cherish their orchestra. And so with this unforgettable performance the Nelsons era came to an end, though it’s not quite the end for he and the orchestra and the CBSO Chorus have one last outing together: Beethoven’s Ninth at the BBC Proms on 19 July. He will be back in Birmingham, I’m sure, as an honoured guest, but for now, with his successor still to be chosen, he leaves big shoes to fill.” …
Highlights from the other movements were aplenty. The changes of mood in the third movement were brilliantly executed, with the offstage flugelhorn exquisitely lyrical. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s performance was perfectly measured and supported by some mellifluous French horn playing. The CBSO Youth and Children’s Choruses were enchanting in the fifth movement, maintaining good balance with the adult chorus and bringing joyous light relief after the profundity of the fourth movement. In the final movement Nelsons, who had conducted with passion and energy throughout and sometimes jumping on the spot, seemed to get renewed strength and there was a palpable response from the musicians as the finale built to its emphatic conclusion.As Nelsons cut the final thunderous chord his arms remained aloft, motionless and statuesque. Two thousand two hundred lungs simultaneously suspended their breath. Not until the sound had completely faded away after a prolonged pause did he move. Only then did the audience exhale, rising spontaneously as one in a standing ovation that went well past the point of hand hurting.
So, what is it that Nelsons has with the CBSO that they find so difficult to replace? Personal chemistry. Despite the risks, the CBSO is right to hold out until they find such chemistry again before appointing Nelsons’ successor.”
Review by Fiona Maddocks:
Click here for full review
… “A hundred minutes is a long time to be on the edge of your seat, but Nelsons kept us there throughout this epic hymn to man and nature.
During his time in Birmingham he has made his mark with resplendent Wagner and Strauss, electrifying Beethoven and a shoal of world premieres and recordings. The orchestra, trained for 18 years by Simon Rattle and for a decade by Sakari Oramo, was already on fine form. With Nelsons they have discovered a new freedom of expression. This reflects the qualities of this warm-hearted musician from Riga, not yet 40, who encountered his first opera – Tannhäuser – aged five, cried when the hero died, and decided to become a conductor.
The Ešenvalds work, Lakes Awake at Dawn, recalls a dark event in Latvian history – June 1940 – when a mass Soviet deportation to Siberia forced thousands to flee their homes and spend a fearful night in the forest. After an explosive start, the work achieves a radiant calm as dawn arrives. The writing is tonal and ecstatic, immediate in impact rather than radical. Commissioned both by the CBSO and Boston, where it was premiered last year, it was a thoughtful prelude to the Mahler, troubling more for its subject matter than its harmonies.
Nelsons has always shaped every phrase and nuance – unlike, say, Barenboim, who sometimes drops his arms altogether and leaves his players to get on with it. Edging towards the precipice with his fascination for detail, Nelsons somehow always holds the work secure and intact. This was true in the half-hour-long first movement of the Mahler. Colours and effects stood out as if for the first time – the burbling bassoons, the military wind-band mood of the high E flat clarinets. (“Yes, Mr Mahler has E flat clarinets on the brain,” sniped a Viennese critic, one of many who questioned the composer’s sanity when the work was new.)
Using a full avian repertoire of gestures, Nelsons shifts from gawky wet crow to elegant flamingo to shrinking sparrow to, in the limitless melody of the final movement, a giant kite gliding freely in space. His players, never knowing what might happen next, are ever alert. Check out the CBSO’s tribute video, and see him waggle his hands behind his ears to conjure a brass trill. Boston will enjoy him, if they can keep him.” …