The hottest conductor around, Andris Nelsons, and his equally hot (in the most polite sense) soprano wife, with an orchestra at the very top of its game, presented a varied programme which gave the appearance of being an afternoon of trifles, but which in effect turned out to be anything but that. The central works were the two vocal solos, the ideally contrasting ‘Willow Song / Ave Maria’ from Otello¸ and Tatyana’s ‘Letter Scene’ from Eugene Onegin, allowing many to find out the reason for all the fuss about Kristīne Opolais.
Hers is not a very large, or even especially distinctive voice, but it is sweet in tone, used with intense musicality and it belongs to a very beautiful and dramatically convincing singer; it’s obvious why she caused such a stir with her Butterfly. The delicacy and vulnerability of her Desdemona, at times perhaps a shade under-powered for this hall, were finely suggested, and her Tatyana rose to the fervid climaxes whilst at the same time reminding us that this is a young girl whose outpourings are very much the result of over-indulgence in romantic fiction. Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra provided wonderfully eloquent support.
That eloquence was just as evident in Dvořák’s 8th Symphony, so often seen as a charming lightweight but here given an intensely detailed, lovingly prepared performance which seemed to take it to a whole other level, with some superb solo playing from woodwind and horns. The moving Adagio was taken at the kind of solemn pace which those for whom the only great symphonic music is the slow movement would relish, and the closing Allegro was a headlong rush through to a breathtaking conclusion.
Three familiar lollipops in the shape of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin and Johann Strauss II’s ‘Emperor’ Waltz and ‘Thunder and Lightning’ polka were given as much care as the more ‘serious’ pieces; all three were conducted and played with tremendous panache. Birmingham is about to lose Andris Nelsons to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, of which he becomes Music Director from the 2014/15 season, but it’s safe to assume that the exceptional rapport he has achieved with the CBSO will be able to continue, not least via their ongoing recordings of Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.
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