The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have no problem attracting some of the very best soloists, and this concert saw yet another exceptional pianist take centre stage at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Boris Giltburg has been establishing a strong reputation in recent years and with this performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major, Op.26, it is easy to understand why he is in demand. The chemistry between soloist and the charismatic maestro Harish Shankar was evident in the tremendous energy the CBSO produced in the accompaniment, a vivacity they carried on through into the evening’s other great power storm, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3 in C minor, Op.78. 

The concert programme began, by contrast, in a much more mellow mood, with Ravel’s Ma mère L’Oye (Mother Goose) suite. This was a great warm up for Shankar and the CBSO, requiring particularly delicate and intense playing from the woodwind section. We saw a masterclass in control from individual players, requiring optimum balance from the orchestra as a collective. Shankar delivered in all aspects and kept the musical palette alive with narrative nuance. The composition itself is rather bland, being originally conceived of as a children’s piano study for four hands. While the subsequent orchestration for ballet makes for a pleasing cacophony, I could not help thinking it was an understatement before the main event, the grand “Organ Symphony”.

And there was absolutely nothing understated in the concerto that followed. Right from the outset there was a determined focus to the orchestral sound, and by the time the piano entered the fray the concerto was accelerating on turbo charge. Giltburg sat hunched at the piano, his left leg tucked underneath the stool as if he was driving an automatic, pumping the forte pedal full throttle while his pounding hands blurred before our eyes. Prokofiev’s piano concerti do tend to be heavily percussive. Yet this was not all thumpy power chords; there were clear lines of contrast in the touch and space of the phrasing. I was somewhat transfixed by the movement of Giltburg’s hands, which seemed to be dancing and leaping frenetically from the keys, but varying their landings from thunder to featherlight at will. The virtuosity was outstanding and never let up for the entire piece, but it was the conviction and musicality of Giltburg’s interpretation that shone through over and above the breathtaking speed of his hands. There was a particular moment in the performance that I will remember. Harish Shankar turned to look at Giltburg during one of the orchestrated passages and had a huge, gleaming-white toothy grin beaming right across his darkly bearded face. When the conductor is enjoying himself this much then you simply know it is as good as your ears are telling you. At the very end of the concerto I heard an audience chorus of “wow” echoing my own.

Having changed gear completely, new feet were brought onto the pedals for the Organ Symphony in the second half of the programme, with Darius Battiwalla among the pipes in the high seat above the orchestra. The CBSO were obviously still energised from the Prokofiev, and the string and woodwind sections brilliantly executed the first movement. However, my enjoyment of the second movement was a tad tempered by the scintillating pace. Too much allegro and not enough moderato for my personal taste, and the nobility of the string phrasing was somewhat sacrificed to speed, not leaving enough contrast with the Presto. Nonetheless, this was a niggle in an otherwise strong performance, with Shankar and Battiwalla doing a first-rate job in ensuring that the balance between orchestra and organ was spot-on throughout the piece. This was especially the case in the final movement with that famous opening chord of the Maestoso. The temptation to overdo the organ volume was wisely avoided to the benefit of achieving a coherent wall of sound, built not only on organ but on the solid pillars of some great trombone and tuba playing, ornamented by strident and brilliant trumpets. This great organ and brass combination brought both the symphony and the concert to a triumphant conclusion.