Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Andris Nelsons conducts Sibelius and Wagner

If you read Katherine’s newsletter last week you may remember that she alluded to an exciting new disc of one of Sibelius’s symphonies. Well, that disc is now available, and what a marvellous recording it is. Here at Presto we’re based close enough to Birmingham that we’ve been able to enjoy many fine performances by the CBSO under conductor Andris Nelsons, and so it was with a mixture of sadness and eager anticipation that we heard he was to leave in order to take up the position of music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in September last year.

Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

The orchestra hasn’t wasted much time in releasing Nelsons’s first recording on its own label, and we are thrilled to announce that, by special arrangement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, we are able to offer this new disc of Sibelius’s Second Symphony and the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser to you. I say new; in fact it could hardly be much newer, as the Sibelius was only recorded in November, so it really is hot off the press!

Of course, as Nelsons himself acknowledges, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has had a long relationship with the music of Sibelius – not only did Serge Koussevitzky champion his music, conducting all seven of the symphonies during the composer’s lifetime, but Colin Davis also recorded a complete cycle of symphonies in the 1970s that is still regarded by many as a classic set.

I’m happy to say that this disc definitely continues in this tradition of excellence: this is a performance of great energy, especially in the first movement, which has a huge amount of drive and motion. This is a symphony that has lots of tricky corners for a conductor to negotiate, and Nelsons manages them all with ease; everything seems to flow naturally without any awkward transitions. Similarly, the slow build-up towards the end of the symphony is judged to perfection: the ominously swirling strings and woodwind hand over to triumphant-sounding brass, with the trumpets in particular on top form.

Despite all of this, I think my favourite movement of this performance might be the second: the hushed string passages contrast magnificently with perky woodwind and shattering brass chords, and the pizzicato cellos and basses at the start of the movement are fantastic, leading into a wonderfully desolate bassoon melody.

It’s highly appropriate that Nelsons’s debut disc on the BSO’s own label should include the very first piece from his opening concert – the overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser, which Nelsons says is the piece that made him want to be a conductor when his parents took him to a performance of the opera at the tender age of five. I must say that this is an extremely impressive account: not only is there immaculate string playing, but there’s a lovely woodwind tone throughout. I must have listened to the opening phrase dozens of times, marvelling at the care Nelsons takes over phrasing every single bar.

Similarly, his careful attention to orchestral balance is evident from start to finish: not only can you hear clearly all of the fiendish string passagework (effortlessly despatched by the Boston players), but this must be one of the few performances where the trombones don’t completely obliterate the rest of the orchestra when it is their turn to play the “big tune”!

Judging from the audience reaction at the end of this live performance, Nelsons is already causing quite a stir in Boston, and I have no doubt that there will be many future recordings as impressive as this one. I for one can’t wait to hear more!

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 and Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC