In September last year the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra announced the appointment of Kazuki Yamada as its chief conductor and artistic director, a role he is to commence from Spring 2023. So, tonight’s concert was a celebratory anticipation of, hopefully, great things to come. It certainly proved to be a popular engagement with the local audience, and with an Austro-German programme of music by Mozart, Mahler and Strauss, Yamada had plenty of opportunity to showcase the vitality and sensitivity of his musical style.

Fatma Said and Kazuki Yamada
© Beki Smith

The concert opened with Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan. This is not a piece for the fainthearted, but Yamada did not stop to blink. He swaggered up to the podium with a beaming smile, then quickly turned to unleash thunderous energy. Neither did the CBSO hesitate in its response, and the youthful zest for living a full life encapsulated by the work was abundantly rendered. Indeed, the performance was almost too energetic at times, and the overall balance left the woodwind section struggling to be heard over the vivacious strings. However, eventually the oboe broke though in a more tender section to deliver an exquisitely phrased solo, as Yamada reigned in the excesses. The underlying theme of unabashed energy would soon return, and by the end Yamada was literally bouncing up and down, driving the CBSO to a frenzy until Don Juan ultimately succumbed to his tragic fate.

The programme then went back a century to a more sedate time, featuring two arias by Mozart: the concert piece "Vado, mi dove? – oh, Dei!", K583 and "Non più di fiori" from La Clemenza di Tito. Both arias were sung in Italian by Egyptian soprano Fatma Said, as elegant and mysterious as her dark indigo gown. Said impressively matched the orchestra in both tone and volume, silkily pairing her phrasing with various instruments from the orchestration. Her vocal control was superb, from barely audible pianissimo to full-throttled fortissimo, yet she was consistently on top of her performance, always leaving herself with a little something extra to give so that nothing was forced.

Kazuki Yamada
© Beki Smith

The main event was, of course, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 4. As far as Mahler symphonies go, the Fourth is relatively low-key and short, coming in at just under an hour. It is arguably one of Mahler’s most misunderstood works, too. However, at least to my mind, Yamada’s interpretation was spot on. The symphony has to be heard in the context of the composer's preceding two symphonies as the conclusion of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with a childlike – but not a childish – wonder and hope. In conducting this piece, Yamada kept the strings much more subdued than he had in Don Juan, allowing the woodwinds and horns greater space to breathe. The CBSO woodwind section rose to the challenge with some wonderful oboe, flute, bassoon and clarinet passages. The contrast between the intensity of the Scherzo and the lush romanticism of the Adagio was masterful.

Said joined the orchestra once more for the fourth and final movement, this time singing in German Das himmlische Leben (The heavenly life). I was astounded by how beautifully this was performed by the orchestra and sung by Said. I simply wanted it to go on and on.

This was not a perfect performance. There was a slight imbalance between sections in Don Juan and a couple of minor tuning issues in Mahler’s symphony. However, these things did not detract from the overall experience of the concert, a performance of energy, sophistication, beauty and superb interpretation. The concert gave the CBSO a resounding endorsement of its choice of leader and foretold of great musical moments yet to come.