There’s only one City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but on Wednesday evening you’d be forgiven for thinking there might be two.

One CBSO iteration performed Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. There’s no other way of saying it: it was a mess. From the outset, rhythms were consistently inaccurate, not only between orchestral sections but even within them, the first violins in particular unable to lock together. One wondered if it was a clumsiness resulting from Finnegan Downie Dear’s seemingly wilful lack of gesture – barely the hint of a pulse from his vague arm movements – presumably assuming that the first movement would drive itself. It didn’t, and while the Scene by the Brook fared better – finally coordinated though nonetheless given a bland, dynamically inert treatment – what followed went downhill sharply, sloppy accuracy and blatant mistakes in the third movement progressing to an outright scrappy thunderstorm. The orchestra salvaged something in the final movement, though their coherence was pushed into an interpretation so genteel it bordered on twee (Beethoven has never sounded so inoffensive). Unfortunately, the symphony’s final two notes were very obviously unsynchronised, leading Downie Dear, after an ineffectual pause, to shrug at the orchestra, which said everything about the 40-minute disaster to which we had all been subjected.

James Ehnes
© Hannah Fathers

What was most disorienting about this mediocre display was the skill, fire and panache that a different iteration of the CBSO had demonstrated earlier in the concert. With soloist James Ehnes, their account of Britten’s Violin Concerto was superbly balanced between attitudes of cheerfulness and solemnity. In the opening movement this manifested in a marvellous transition that began with playful propulsion, the music practically skipping over its insistent motifs, whereupon – completely imperceptible at first – it gradually took on a greater tone of gravitas, all the while somehow continuing to maintain a light veneer.

It’s a balance that persisted throughout the rest of the work. The second movement, in particular, polarised Britten’s material to extremes. Here, in a complete contrast to the Beethoven, Downie Dear’s minimal gestures worked to great effect, eliciting enormous exuberance, speed and power from the CBSO. The effect, peppered with slaps, wallops and crashes that the players clearly relished, was to create a sonic minefield through which Ehnes gingerly weaved his lyrical line. That is, until everything was turned on its head, transporting the work somewhere that seemed stratospheric until, everything else having fallen away, it became haunted, like a faintly glistening near-vacuum of strange harmonics and weird high chitterings. The closing Passacaglia struck a less demonstrative but arguably more telling equivocality, optimistic but also pained, encapsulated in the work’s closing oscillation between major and minor, brilliantly controlled by Ehnes in a slowly-dissolving trill.

Best of all, though, was Cassandra Miller’s La Donna, the UK premiere of which opened the concert. Continuing Miller’s fascination of working with found sounds as the basis for musical material, the piece draws on an old recording of Genoese ‘Trallalero’ singing. At first it appeared as if Miller would simply be transcribing the music, launching into a gloriously overblown burst of folk lyricism, crowned by an enthusiastic solo trumpet, though it quickly became apparent that the piece was going to do, and be, a whole lot more. Having passed through sequences that seemed to be semi-suspended, details and lines freezing into hazy clouds, it became a wondrously intricate texture object, ostensibly static yet with movement everywhere, sliding, swooping and undulating. Downie Dear and the CBSO’s control and precision here were mesmerising, slowly reducing by layers, eventually arriving at something like a complex tonic chord eternally caught on the cusp of resolution; it was just ravishingly beautiful.