City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons / Baiba Skride - Sheldonian Theatre Oxford, 5 February 2010
Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre is mainly employed for university lectures and ceremonies but it has hosted plenty of concerts too over its 300+ year history. Handel's oratorio Athalia premiered here in 1733 in front of, reportedly, 3,700 people. There can't have been even a quarter of that number at the CBSO's Friday concert, yet it was still nose-to-tail on the narrow galleried benches, with the orchestra spreading over most of the floor area. Handel's audiences must have been smaller, slimmer and a great deal more tolerant.
The subtleties of Rimsky's orchestration of Musorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain were smudged in the loud, boomy Sheldonian acoustic. But the CBSO responded to Andris Nelsons's energetic encouragement - more dancing than conducting, really - with a conviction that made the old warhorse at least tolerable.
Baiba Skride's white-hot solos raised the roof in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. A scorching, inspired third movement cadenza capped a technically immaculate and exquisitely judged performance. Andris Nelsons' pacing was intelligent. Physically he gives the impression of unbridled energy, but musically he knows when to hold back and when to let go. This isn't even a work I particularly like or admire, but it was impossible not to be utterly gripped from start to finish.
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony couldn't reach the same level of intensity, but all the same it was a delightfully fresh account of an over-familiar work. Despite the clotting acoustics, phrases emerged neatly sculpted and transparently coloured. There were no half-planned ideas and no half-baked playing. The second movement's horn solo was beautifully taken, but the woodwinds were just as impressive, and the CBSO strings have developed a luxurious golden sheen. Again the pacing was immaculate, the delicious lightness of the waltzing third movement allowing Nelsons to avoid bombast in the powerful finale.
The CBSO under Nelsons are just getting better and better. Hopefully they'll turn up at the Proms this year, but if not, it's worth a trip out of London to catch them.
***** more photos on next page *****
The Sheldonian's ceiling painting depicts Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences and expelling ignorance from the University. As if:
The semicircle (from where this picture was taken) has probably the best acoustics, but the least comfortable seats (row A aside, backless benches). In the lower gallery, behind and to the side, the benches have backrests but are overhung by the upper gallery, another set of backless benches. The most comfortable (and expensive) seats are the chairs right in front of the orchestra, but not everyone wants to get that close.....