There runs a fine tradition of Elgarians in Birmingham, beginning with Adrian Boult and what was then the City of Birmingham Orchestra through to their more recent times with Sakari Oramo. Another important Elgar interpreter, Nigel Kennedy, has given commanding performances with the same orchestra of that ‘local’ composer’s towering Violin Concerto, famously captured on disc with Simon Rattle. I was keen to see how violinist Vilde Frang would fare in this great work alongside conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

It is the conductor who gets to set the tone for the performance in this most symphonic of concertos. Gražinytė-Tyla’s introduction was spacious and imposing, with just the right amount of flexibility, not unlike the late Sir Colin Davis’ way. Here, and throughout, the CBSO proved a fine vehicle for a work that is so much a part of its history. With the mood perfectly established by Gražinytė-Tyla, Frang entered with a sultry, sotto voce tone. Laden with swinging vibrato throughout, Frang’s sometimes wiry sound will have not been to all tastes.

This was an exciting performance that did not always find Frang and Gražinytė-Tyla in lockstep. Occasionally, Frang would push forward where Gražinytė-Tyla did not seem to wish to. They are taking this work on tour to Germany and I feel sure the performance will settle. There were some really touching moments in the Andante, a particular highlight being the sensitive CBSO string players. The final movement saw Frang more in her element and her apparent impetuosity served her best leading into Elgar’s novel accompanied cadenza, which sees selected string players strumming their instruments like mandolins while the soloist reprises the first movement main theme. This moment was impressively realised by all involved and led to a satisfying close.

Violins were rearranged, firsts and seconds on opposite sides of the stage, for the second half. This was a missed opportunity in the first half as Elgar’s antiphonal writing for these sections can be seen as the culmination of what Beethoven had pioneered over a hundred years previously. Nowhere was this more on display than in Gražinytė-Tyla’s sublimely lyrical rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F major, the “Pastoral”. She and the orchestra proved that it is possible to make this music really sing, even with various period-influenced touches like reduced string vibrato, natural trumpets and old-style timpani.

The first movement had a relaxed feel, with Gražinytė-Tyla teasing out pleasing details, such as woodwind bird calls, and emphasising Beethoven’s bass lines. She had a knack of generating excitement and tension out of his repetitious writing where tedium can arise in the hands of others. In the Scene by the Brook, Gražinytė-Tyla found the perfect tempo to ensure this beautiful music never dragged. Marie-Christine Zupancic’s crystalline flute playing was really special here and she and her principal woodwind colleagues made Beethoven’s trio of bird calls sound entirely natural at the movement’s coda.

The players were clearly enjoying this performance, particularly the leader, Abigail Young, in the rambunctious Peasants' Merrymaking. If the depicted thunderstorm in the fourth movement was not as terrifying as I have heard it, the transition to the calm after the storm was terrifically evocative as the thunder passed into the distance. Out of this emerged a Shepherd’s Hymn with an irresistible lilt, myriad string colours and a conclusion in which the sense of arrival was palpable.

Beethoven’s birdcalls cleverly linked to the opening piece in this programme, Messiaen’s Un Sourire, written in 1989 to commemorate the bicentenary of Mozart’s death in 1791. There were no stylistic tributes to Mozart here – this was pure Messiaen. The piece essentially moves between music of impressionistic stillness, aided by the conductor’s own impressive stillness, and chattering birdsong, in the form of frenetic wind and percussion outbursts. All this was crowned by a most bizarre touch of orchestration: the trumpeter’s one and only note, saved for the cathartic and consonant final chord. Not even Wagner dared such a minimalist way to irritate a trumpet player!