Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Andris Nelsons brings the Concertgebouw to Vienna

Musikverein, 20/11/2011

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Chaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto no. 5 in F major, op. 103
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947 version)

Judging by exposure alone, it seems that the Musikverein’s golden wagon is now well and truly hitched to the rising star of Andris Nelsons. I missed his Symphoniker concerts the other week because of Wien Modern but will make it to the CBSO & Kaufmann in March and the BRSO & Grimaud in April. Sternstunden indeed (this is me admitting I like Grimaud, well some of the time anyway). But wait, there’s more! On Sunday Nelsons conducted his mentor’s other orchestra, and the playing was every bit as refined as you’d expect.

That old European refinement came with American-style precision, as the orchestra demonstrated right from the beginning of the Chaikovsky. There’s balance, there’s balancing a crescendo, and then there’s balancing a hairpin – and Nelsons had all three under impressive control. How often do we hear the surge and ebb of this piece done with just the strings – the kiss of death to the abundance of detail elsewhere, particularly in the winds? Not the case here. Phrasing remained a touch syrupy for my taste, but Nelsons never pushed the music and a carefully guarded beginning to the cor anglais solo banished all thoughts of TV commercial couples doing that awful slow-motion meadow running thing.

The orchestra, or at least individual elements, were never too prominent in the Saint-Saëns, though the overall volume was a touch too loud for Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s light and nimble touch, which didn’t project as well as when I’ve heard him previously. Thibaudet was determined to avoid over-romanticizing this music, but seemed closed off to alternative expressive possibilities. I thought this just about worked in his encore of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat (op. 9 no. 2), where he allowed at least some rubato, but this Saint-Saëns concerto surely didn’t need to be so withdrawn. The first movement has a couple of Franck-like sequences where Stephen Hough (in this highly recommended recording) allows himself some flexibility and is unafraid to let the mask slip. Thibaudet’s passagework sparkled but that was about it for expression. I did however like his second movement a lot (the one stuffed with exotica). No need to gild the lily here.

Petrushka had its memorable moments, and not just in the solos. Nelsons has a great ear for detail: one of his many gestures was this Rhinemaiden arm wave by which he added tint to four or five things in quick succession. But as deft as the pointillism was, it came at the expense of any structural insight he might have had to offer. The music was rather episodic and linear at points, with things happening one after the other and the connections between them glossed over. Still, some very exciting playing from the Concertgebouw.

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