sun 18/08/2019

CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - joy unbounded | reviews, news & interviews

CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - joy unbounded

CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - joy unbounded

Brahms comes up as fresh as dew, in an unexpected but effective programme

An exuberant symphonic sweep: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

You can tell a lot from the opening of Brahms’s Second Symphony. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra began it – and it’s not the first time they’ve done this in a big German symphony – as if in mid-flow: a broad, sunlit river of music, rolling out as if it had already been going on somewhere else already, and we’d only just tuned in.

And if there’s one characteristic that defined this performance, it’d be that combined sense of inevitability and wonder. There was more to it than just that, of course: Birmingham's Symphony Hall offers near-limitless scope for clarity and instrumental colour, and no artists are better-place to take advantage of that than the CBSO and its music director. Colour glowed from every bar, realised in vivid but unfussy detail. Bassoons sketched charcoal lines in the middle-distance; string figuration rustled and shimmered as Gražinytė-Tyla draped it, garland like, over the soft woodwind chorales of the first movement’s recapitulation. The CBSO’S timpanist Matthew Hardy showed that as well as dealing thunder he could flush the whole orchestra with deep, dark warmth; and Gražinytė-Tyla played the third movement as a wind serenade with cello accompaniment, before running without break into the finale.

That was all of a piece with her overall vision of the work as a single, exuberant symphonic sweep – omitting the first movement repeat and playing the Adagio as an extended intermezzo of passionate grandeur and delicate asides. Everything pulled towards that final climax and the crowning trombone chord, and it might have felt relentless if it hadn’t been for those colours and Gražinytė-Tyla’s vivid, unaffected sense of character – teasing and caressing the cello’s long first movement second subject; carefully pointing the darkening string chords beneath a horn solo, and never forgetting that the each of the first three movements, too, has its share of moments that dance and exult.

There was something irresistibly wide-eyed about it all; though if the ability to perceive the point of a musical argument and then to articulate it with all one’s energy isn’t the essence of great symphonic conducting, I don’t know what is. It won’t have been to the taste of those who prefer their Brahms like a bowl of veal-lung stew with dumplings. But it flew by with the musical logic and unbridled joy of a symphony by Haydn; and I reckon Brahms would have been shrewd enough to take that compliment.

A constant, shifting shadowscape of low flutes, smokey oboes and occasional sinister stabs of muted horn or trumpet

The Brahms followed one of those first halves that look incongruous on paper but turn out to be nothing of the sort. The programme note, by the late Gerald Larner, drew attention to the fact that Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was conceived as a sort of war memorial. The brightness in this music is something elusive; crossed by shadows and glinting out of dark corners. Gražinytė-Tyla’s swift, light-fingered approach gave the Prelude the sense of something slipping through the fingers while the Forlane showed jagged edges amid a constant, shifting shadowscape of low flutes, smokey oboes and occasional sinister stabs of muted horn or trumpet. Again, Gražinytė-Tyla’s combined mastery of colour and form found the profundity in music that’s too easily assumed to be light; but then she has excellent colleagues, and guest-leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, harpist Katherine Thomas and flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic stood out as first amongst equals when a sextet of CBSO players gave a balletic, playful account of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.  

The concert had begun with Honegger’s Pastorale d’été; almost, it seemed, as a demonstration of Symphony Hall’s acoustic and Gražinytė-Tyla’s capacity for finding multiple meanings in a single work. She deftly layered the opening string phrases, set them gently rocking, and then let Elspeth Dutch’s long horn solo float far above in undisturbed stillness. Honegger supposedly conceived the piece above an Alpine valley at Wengen; as a musical image of mist dissolving far below while the upper air fills with cool sunlit clarity, it was beautifully realised – with the bright, folk-like central section positively bracing. The vision finally dissolved on Oliver Janes’s murmured, delicately controlled clarinet solo.

It was a surprise of the best sort, but part of the joy of Gražinytė-Tyla’s programmes in Birmingham is discovering how much she finds in repertoire where one might not necessarily expect it. Norman Lebrecht recently responded to her recent CBSO Weinberg recording by inviting suggestions as to which rarities she might rejuvenate next. Personally, on the strength of this concert I’d put in a bid for Honegger’s Fourth Symphony.

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