Having failed to hear the CBSO in person since Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla took over the baton from Andris Nelsons, I was sorry to open my programme to find a note introducing the orchestra's Assistant Conductor, Jonathan Bloxham, covering for a presumably unwell Mirga. Despite best efforts, it was difficult to look past this and hear the music on its own merits, without looking for some deficiency as a result of the Music Director's absence. Bloxham, though, filled the gap with utmost assurance and skill.

Rudolf Buchbinder © Marco Borggreve
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Marco Borggreve

It is unclear how much of the considerable individuality of tonight's readings of Wagner, Schumann and Beethoven staples was down to the late substitute, and one suspects this orchestra can probably play itself in such familiar repertoire, but there was a great deal to appreciate in each work. The varied programme, offering a reverse tour from the peak of Romanticism to some of its earliest mutterings, showed the orchestra’s sound in a multitude of lights, scrutinising their tone with natural trumpets and manual timpani as much as the rich, vibrato-laden colours of Tristan.

Rather than luscious textural thickness, though, it was the transparent fragility of the strings which opened the evening, tiptoeing softly into the famous “Tristan chord”. Despite playing with a slightly reduced section of 50 players, there was a beautifully rich bloom on the sound, spread wide across the stage with violin sections seated opposite each other (a new development since Nelsons’ tenure). The sopranoless “Liebestod” found a magical sheen in the violin tremelos and high winds. Despite quick tempi, the sound remained a considerable distance behind Bloxham’s beat, which accentuated the sense that the great climactic cadence minutes from the end of the opera hung in the air for an eternity. With happy memories of their fantastic Dutchman five years ago in Birmingham, I would love to hear this orchestra play the other four hours of this opera.

However much Mirga may have been missed, there was no doubt about the enormous presence of the other big name of the evening. After walking on stage with the air of a man about to tackle a great late-Romantic marathon concerto, Rudolf Buchbinder gave an account of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto which could convert the most ardent Schumann-agnostic to the joys of his music. The curious atmosphere of the concerto was fully realised, played with a soft Mona Lisa half-smile which in turn was fragile and elsewhere resurgent. There was as much a change in style from Wagner to Schumann as from Schumann to Beethoven, not only shedding half the horns and the trombones but also with a lighter, more plaintive sound, harder timpani mallets and an abundance of eye contact between soloist and front desk strings. In the first movement Buchbinder’s warm legato and soft touch were swept aside by a thrilling cadenza, leading to a breathless (and slightly uneven) dash to the finish line. The delicate aesthetic of the slow movement blossomed seemlessly into the finale, where the sound was only ever fleetingly at all heavy. The flighty dance of the final pages rolled infectiously onwards (there were more than a few air conductors in the audience), all the while light in touch and keeping up that fragile smile. 

The orchestra’s voice for Beethoven’s Fifth was a world apart again, here proclaiming the revolution with period trumpets and drums, alto trombone and a lean, muscular bite in the sound. It was slightly curious that the repeats were observed in the first movement but eschewed in the Scherzo and finale, but artistic indulgences were otherwise few. There was the slightest sprinkling of rubato in the otherwise breathlessly agitated first movement, and tempi in the inner movements remained quick. The slow movement found considerable beauty and optimism despite its forward-looking tempo, and it was unfortunate that the silence at its end was shattered by someone emptying copious glass recycling outside in the bar. The brassy declarations of the Scherzo gave the music a sense of a ruthlessly uncompromising march with some fine horn playing before bursting into the light of the finale. The last minutes were a joyous realisation of Beethoven’s writing, and although the repeat was sadly omitted and the piccolo slightly underbalanced, to make Beethoven sound this revolutionary even after Schumann and Wagner speaks a great deal for the quality of the orchestra.