tue 24/11/2020

Kanneh-Mason, CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla online review - muted celebrations | reviews, news & interviews

Kanneh-Mason, CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla online review - muted celebrations

Kanneh-Mason, CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla online review - muted celebrations

Eloquent playing to an empty hall, as the CBSO marks its centenary in social isolation

Centenary reshuffle: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with the CBSOBenjamin Ealovega

“This year was supposed to be so very different” said Stephen Maddock, Chief Executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when he spoke to theartsdesk earlier this year. Talk about an understatement. The CBSO has hardly been alone in having cherished plans wrecked.

“This year was supposed to be so very different” said Stephen Maddock, Chief Executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when he spoke to theartsdesk earlier this year. Talk about an understatement. The CBSO has hardly been alone in having cherished plans wrecked. But in the orchestra’s centenary year, the sudden cancellation of a programme of celebrations that had taken the best part of a decade to plan felt like a particularly cruel blow. And having finally pieced together a skeletal replacement season (the CBSO’s main venue, Symphony Hall, was able to re-open its doors only in November – forcing the orchestra to celebrate its 100th birthday in a visually spectacular but acoustically poor studio venue), the CBSO managed to present just one live concert with its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla before the latest lockdown forced it back online again.

Well, if the history of Britain’s orchestras tells us anything, it’s that they generally come back fighting. Many of the 40-odd centenary commissions will doubtless be premiered in future seasons, and several of the big events planned for 2020 will also probably be reinstated – although fans of Granville Bantock and Victor Hely-Hutchinson may now have to wait another century for their moment in the sun. The 100th anniversary of the day – 10 November 1920 – when Sir Edward Elgar conducted the City of Birmingham Orchestra (the “Symphony” bit came later) in its official launch concert was marked with this performance, played behind closed doors without an audience. If an orchestra plays and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? A week later, on BBC Radio 3 (it will subsequently be available on the CBSO’s own website too), this was a chance to find out.

The content of the programme reflected the curious circumstances – with nods to three separate anniversaries crammed into the oddly foreshortened concert format we’ve come to accept as the New Normal. Two of Sibelius’s Lemminkaïnen Legends marked the appearance of Sibelius as a guest conductor in the orchestra’s first season (he stayed at the home of his old friend Bantock in Edgbaston, and by all accounts terrified the children). Beethoven’s Leonore overture No.3 (it’s still the Beethoven anniversary year) provided a suitably upbeat finish to a concert that was, despite everything, a celebration. The only remaining fragment of the original plan was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, one of three of his own works that the composer conducted on that gala night 100 years and one week ago (The others were Falstaff and the Second Symphony – by 1920 standards, an uncompromisingly modern programme). In 2020, it was played by Sheku Kanneh-Mason (pictured below).Sheku Kanneh-Mason (photo by Jake Turney)And for that reason alone, it would be worth waiting to catch the concert when it’s released (from this evening) with visuals on the CBSO’s website. Kanneh-Mason projects such warmth and presence in the concert hall that it felt, unavoidably, as if we were missing a dimension on radio. Indisputable, though, was the way that his tone is growing in beauty and depth, and the increasing focus with which he wields that burnished sound. There was a vintage flavour to his reading: measured, eloquent, with the pulse of his vibrato and the bite of his attack hinting at a passion that, while certainly present, was always under firm control. Gražinytė-Tyla and her players took advantage of the space he opened out to sketch an expansive, twilit landscape. The distinctive colours of a sinking woodwind cadence, a shadowy viola line or an ashen bass pedal all found room to speak, in an interpretation of broad vistas and telling silences.

Possibly the nature of the hall had some bearing: Symphony Hall’s famously pristine acoustic is designed to sound at its most natural with an audience present. Nothing to be done about that, of course, and in The Swan of Tuonela Gražinytė-Tyla made the broadest possible use of that empty space: beginning at the edge of audibility and surrounding Rachael Pankhurst’s poised, pleading cor anglais solo with a broader and more striking range of colours than we usually hear in this piece - from the black, seismic roar of the timpani to the sunlit glint of the harp. She’d opened the concert with Lemminkaïnen’s Homecoming: brisk, bracing, and just as transparent. Back in 2016, a majestic performance of the entire Lemminkaïnen cycle helped win Gražinytė-Tyla her post in Birmingham. But this was a different sort of occasion and the Homecoming served here as a sort of bravura fanfare to open the evening, rather than a triumphant resolution.

That was the function of the Beethoven, and it was here, perhaps, that the absence of an audience (and the energy it generates) was most noticeable. That offstage trumpet sounded very distant indeed; on the other hand, the broad tempi allowed individual players to emerge, unforced, and really characterise the music. The flute and bassoon duet after the trumpet call was Leonore and Rocco to the life. And there was no mistaking the sincerity with which Gražinytė-Tyla shaped the melody of Florestan’s great aria: a song of life and hope from the depths of the grimmest possible lockdown. Not, perhaps, the celebration that the CBSO had planned – but a moving testimony to where we find ourselves in November 2020, nonetheless.

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