sun 29/03/2020

BBC Proms: Midori, CBSO, Nelsons | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Midori, CBSO, Nelsons

BBC Proms: Midori, CBSO, Nelsons

A classic film score forms the heart of a classic Prom

Jealousy of people who live in Birmingham is not (I venture to hazard) so widespread a phenomenon as to merit a name all its own. After last night’s Prom from the CBSO and music director Andris Nelsons however, a term may well have to be coined for all of us Londoners whose green-eared envy seems unlikely to abate any time soon. We’ve heard the recordings and the rumours of greatness trickling down from the West Midlands, but the opportunity to see this partnership in action further south is rare. Conquering the Royal Albert Hall with an evening of generous, emotive music-making, the CBSO have issued quite the challenge to their London rivals.

On paper this was potentially an overloaded Prom, “framing” Prokofiev’s beloved Alexander Nevsky cantata (which is surely baroque enough to render any such frame extraneous) with Strauss’s Don Juan and his Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. Balancing the extrovert political patriotism of the Prokofiev was Walton’s introverted and wistful Violin Concerto – a work composed in the same year but under very different circumstances.


Joining the orchestra for the Walton was Midori, in only her second ever Proms appearance. Forty this year, she has long since stepped free of the troublesome chrysalis of child prodigy and there can be few violinists less self-aggrandising in performance. Her thoughtful approach made for an unusual dialogue with Nelsons and the orchestra, setting aside some of the more obvious warmth of this Italian-influenced work in favour of a fragile romance that yearned but never quite surrendered.

MidoriMidori’s little frame convulsed with the melodic spasms of the Andante, integrating even the bravura passages into her emotional narrative. If some of the second movement’s tarantella lost body of tone then this was compensated for in the filmy subtlety she brought to the finale – chords that seemed echoes of themselves before they had even sounded. Reaching out where Midori (pictured right) so intelligently refused to do, the CBSO offered textural support whose warm precision was spun directly from Nelson’s baton – no longer the curving, arcing force of the Strauss but here resolutely linear.

Despite winning the dubious approbation of Stalin, Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky and its folk-hued score by Prokofiev have transcended their origins to become classics. Shostakovich may have felt the score (heard here in his later arrangement as freestanding cantata) contained too much “loud, illustrative music”, but its vivid excess provided the perfect orchestral centrepiece for Nelsons and his forces. Conceived on a musical scale that made rare sense of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic, the cantata took us from Walton’s navel-gazing introversion onto the bloodied battlefields of Russia, coloured and animated as even Eisenstein could not by Nelsons’ extraordinary physical vocabulary.

Here the CBSO could finally release the power of their string section who swelled to match the baleful hit of brass and timpani that rose from the back. Joined by the CBSO chorus they marched us through barren landscapes, telling warmly of the great victory over the Teutonic crusaders. The heart of the work is surely its latter sections, where the banners of triumphal nationalist pride become muddied under foot. It was here that the dynamism of the Nelsons/CBSO partnership came into its own, the conflicting currents juddering through The Battle on the Ice, pace rising to a crazed orchestral tattoo. Mezzo Nadezhda Serdiuk mourned passionately over The Field of the Dead with depth and breadth of tone, and just enough simplicity to keep this folk epic from overheating.

I understand the logic of balancing the opening Don Juan (as irrepressible and seductive as you’d expect on the basis of recent CBSO Strauss recordings) with a programmed encore of The Dance of the Seven Veils, but in practice the climax of Alexander Nevsky is such that not even Strauss could add much by way of climactic postscript.

This was a triumph of a Prom: programming popular but not hackneyed pieces, performed with all the urgency and freshly minted sheen of a youth orchestra by an ensemble of professionals. Nelsons lives large in musical rumour and reputation, and in person proves more than capable of filling the Albert Hall with his vital musicianship. He returns to London with the CBSO, Sarah Connolly and Toby Spence next April to perform Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. I’ll see you in the queue.

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Alexandra, you make it sound as though Brum is as far as Timbuktu, when in reality it's not much further in time than, say, Blackheath. So though for Metropolitan critics... Certainly the CBSO is in top form these days - and availabe for audition most frequently at Symphony Hall there.

Surely it's victory over the Teutonic knights - the whole reason the film was made at the time of the German threat in '37/8 - not the Swedes?

Chud you are quite right of course - Teutonic knights it is.

It seems you have followed the trend of not mentioning the 130 strong chorus like your Telegraph and Guardian comrades. Shame!

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