It’s not often you see the harp centre stage in concert, so it was quite an occasion to experience harpist, Xavier de Maistre, performing the Birmingham première of Kaija Saariaho’s harp concerto, Trans. Composed in 2015, it features a large orchestra with a substantial battery of tuned and untuned percussion. The percussion scoring turns out to be a masterstroke as the timbre of the percussion-led accompaniment is light enough so as not to obscure the soloist.

Xavier de Maistre © Gregor Hohenberg
Xavier de Maistre
© Gregor Hohenberg

The three movements provide a sense of structural familiarity in an unfamiliar soundworld, the first being moderate in tempo and the second and third being slow and swift, respectively. In the first, “Fugitif”, the percussion plays a prominent role, with the strings in a more supporting one. De Maistre had no trouble projecting his instrument, particularly in the mainly high register writing. In the second movement, “Vanité”, I particularly enjoyed Saariaho’s request for the soloist to strike several low strings at once, percussively. The effect of this was similar to a muffled bass drum stroke. Elsewhere in the movement, high, stopped notes produced weird effects. “Messager” is an exciting moto perpetuo that features a reprise of material from “Vanité” before coming to an abrupt end.

No doubt de Maistre is a master of his instrument and this was further evidenced in his choice of encore, Wilhelm Posse’s Variations on The Carnival of Venice, which was a virtuosic showpiece and a half. Unfortunately, this felt like something of an overdose of schmaltz, rather undermining the subtlety of what had come before.

There was no danger of too much schmaltz in Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s interpretation of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. This was a distinctive vision of the piece that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was completely committed to. Gražinytė-Tyla seemed to dance her way through much of the symphony. Where other conductors can sometimes linger in some of the gorgeous turns of phrase in the first movement, she was keen to move things on, almost impetuously at times. I sense Gražinytė-Tyla has an ear for the more fantastical elements of Mahler’s writing and she really encouraged woodwind players, in particular, to bring out some of their more boisterous interjections. The central outburst in the first movement was genuinely terrifying, as it should be – one of the several darker moments in a symphony often seen as Mahler’s lightest.

Gražinytė-Tyla and the orchestra brought out the more demonic elements in the second movement’s dance of death. Leader, Vesselin Gellev, clearly relished his up-tuned violin solos, stabbing and squeezing the notes out. The dreamlike interlude that develops later in the movement felt a little laboured, however, and the movement seemed to lose its way a little. There was some very fine playing in the third movement but some of the transitions between sections were not as smooth as they might have been.

The surprise major key orchestral eruption towards the movement’s close was a chance for Gražinytė-Tyla to unveil a surprise of her own: three boy trebles emerged on to the stage to sing in Mahler’s setting of “The Heavenly Life” in the last movement. Mahler conceived the vocal part for a soprano but with the instruction for it to be sung “in a happy childlike manner: absolutely without parody!” I gather Gražinytė-Tyla has deployed these three boy trebles before in this work and it is a fascinating response to what Mahler asks here. I understand three trebles were chosen because the song’s perspective is in the plural and it certainly helped in terms of balance. This was fine and spirited singing but I can’t say I was convinced the movement is better served replacing the soprano in this way. Nevertheless, Birmingham audiences are lucky to have an inventive conductor like Gražinytė-Tyla who is willing to try such things.