At 33, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Music Dirctor Andris Nelsons is young but still almost a decade older than Richard Strauss was when he showed the world how he planned to go on with his dazzling tone poem Don Juan – a piece with an excess of just about everything except length. Identifying totally with its almost reckless spirit of youthful abandon Nelsons and his orchestra sprang off the starting blocks like the Olympics had arrived a year early.
But there was something else in the performance, too – an ability to find space – and in the immediate wake of the opening rush to conquest Nelsons relaxed the tempo extravagantly but almost imperceptibly to allow the harmonies to permeate our senses and the Don to muse on life and love. It was a reading of myriad details and one sweeping climax where violins taking up the great horn theme showed almost indecent relish.
Relish is identifiable in almost every bar of Walton’s Violin Concerto. What a piece. Midori played it with such soft-grained lustre and delicate inflection that the sound itself seemed almost disembodied. It’s a small intense sound, one that will have given radio listeners a better deal than those sitting further away in the hall. But that said, I have rarely heard the sognando (dreamy) quality of this exotic, sun-kissed, music so sensuously addressed. Midori was an exotic bird, a humming bird not a lark in ascendancy, and although there were some balance issues with the dynamic and diaphanous orchestral writing one made the necessary adjustments in one’s inner ear. Playful rather than sardonic in the bravura writing, she nailed just about everything.
And then mother Russia sang and Nelsons dramatically lowered the temperature from hot and sultry to cold and frosty, sul ponticello strings glassily evoking the icy battlefield of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata. One might have wished for a bolder, coarser, less Anglican response from the CBSO Chorus but their battlefield cries duly curdled the blood and whilst not quite regenerating Don Juan’s dashing excitement Nelsons still brought things to the gallop with undeniable aplomb.
But it wasn’t all over until the fat lady danced and ending as he began, with Strauss, Nelsons’ account of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome was the true climax of the concert with a swoon factor pretty much off the scale.