Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major announces itself much more modestly in the opening section than its much more famous predecessor. Its structure is also less conventional, with a number of early cadenzas, and a slow movement that feels more like a triple concerto for piano, violin and cello than for piano alone. Perhaps for this reason I have hitherto paid it little attention. Tonight’s performance made me think again. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were faultless in every respect and created a dramatic tension that invited the piano in to dance. 

Kazuki Yamada conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

French pianist Alexandre Kantorow answered the invitation with power, punch and panache. The Allegro brillante e molto vivace was a serious conversation between piano and orchestra, often taking it in turns to lead but ultimately coming together for the conclusion. Kantorow seemed entirely unperturbed by its complexity and demands, and his phrasing matched that of Kazuki Yamada perfectly.

This was underscored in the dreamy trio of the second movement, where for the most part he played an ancillary role to the first violin and cello. The piano does eventually take on the central role, though, Kantorow playing his part with exceptional sympathy for the themes that the solo strings had established and handed back the reins toward the end of the movement, staying unobtrusive until its close.

The Allegro con fuoco finale, unmistakably stamped with the Russian folk spirit that we associate with Tchaikovsky, gave Kantorow the opportunity to showcase his incredible technical ability again, delivered with musicianship in equal measure. He listens to the orchestra intently and he was never at odds with them. The dances were vibrant, energetic, full of spirit and romance. In the hands of someone of Kantorow’s ability, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto can make a claim to at least equal if not surpass the importance and brilliance of his First.

The CBSO in Symphony Hall
© City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Before the break Kantorow treated us to an encore in contrasting style, Liszt’s arrangement of the first of Schubert’s Geistliche Lieder: elegant, melodious and melancholic, and proving that he is as adept at creating intense mood and atmosphere as he is at playing a frenzied forte from a Tchaikovsky cadenza. This was his first time in Birmingham with the CBSO, but judging by the warmth of his reception there will be a great demand to see him return.

Kazuki Yamada and the CBSO have an electric connection. The orchestra play with a unity and a precision under his baton that I have seldom heard with anyone else. Tonight’s performance of Holst’s The Planets was the best I have ever heard the CBSO. I cannot resist the temptation to pun on it being “out of this world”, because mentally I was teleported out of this earthly existence for the full 50 minutes. Yamada stated his intention with an address to the audience that he wanted the seven planets of the suite to echo the seven colours of the rainbow. Certainly he achieved a rich crimson with Mars, leaving an audible “wow” from the audience upon its completion, but there were prisms and spectrums of colour appearing in all the other movements from all the sections of the orchestra. Of particular note was the ethereal mystic enchantment of choristers gently washing over our heads from the rear of the hall, courtesy of the CBSO Youth Chorus. The CBSO made their own audio-visual recording of tonight’s concert for their promotional purposes. They are sure to have plenty of quality material, as this was a triumph for Yamada and the orchestra. A concert to remember.