What does music weigh? Throughout Wednesday’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert, this seemed to be uppermost in Kazuki Yamada’s mind. An early sign came in Holst’s Japanese Suite, where the Dance of the Marionettes, initially lyrical and spritely, was suddenly transformed into music that appeared to be literally floating in front of us, its melody a strand of gossamer carried on the breeze. As such, it formed a lovely contrast to the more grounded, rhythmic material surrounding it, especially the closing Dance of the Wolves, which the CBSO took evident delight in presenting as an almost rude, lolloping, walloping finale.

Kazuki Yamada and Seong-Jin Cho
© Hannah Blake-Fathers

There were signs of something else in the Holst: glimpses in its calmer moments when the lush harmonies sounded with more than usual transparency, the CBSO making every detail sound with absolute clarity. This was even more the case through Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, to the extent that it was almost a distraction from soloist Seong-Jin Cho. Here, too, were the remarkable shifts in weight, from a leisurely opening – like music waking up and having a stretch – moving to a place where buoyancy and gravity (in every sense) freely intermingled. Cho’s cadenza was notable for sounding as if he were making it up on the spot. 

Most fascinating of all was the way weight was made the basis of something akin to a civilised disagreement in the slow movement, the CBSO’s heavy suggestions being consistently countered by Cho’s delicacy, with the briefest meeting of minds at the end. The closing Rondo was given nicely rough treatment, with wildness running through the counterpoint as if threatening to pull it apart in an act of proto-Romantic abandon, Cho playing up the Mozartian runs and cascades, Yamada allowing time to linger over its lyrical cadences.

Weight and transparency came together to perfection in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Yamada set things up, instilling an air of solemnity we hadn’t yet heard, almost grave yet kept measured by moving briskly. Its considerable gravity was channelled into an undulating, lyrical flow, demonstrating that huge differences in apparent weight could become disparate elements of a single, cohesive narrative. Which is not to say the effect wasn’t, at times, unsettling, particularly when the first movement development dramatically undermined the laid-back attitude of the exposition. Yet at its greatest extremes (and in this performance they were great), simultaneously thrilling and intimidating, it was hard to believe the levels of lushness and lucidity from the CBSO: everywhere detail, everything blending. More proof of the cohesion came in the Scherzo, Yamada making it a continual tilt between fast, fizzing breathlessness and sighing lyricism, again undermining things toward the end, making the brass episode a reminder of the dark solemnity where we began.

Kazuki Yamada conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© Hannah Blake-Fathers

Nowhere was the CBSO’s clarity given more stunning expression than in the Adagio, which was in many ways a synthesis of the entire concert. Its introspection was made to keep flowing – never milked – while its circling lyrical passion had nothing less than a Mahlerian infinitude of scope, like a hymn resonating and filling the universe. Without any hyperbole, it was amazing. Whereupon, stunned and moved, all remaining traces of weight vanished as Yamada whipped up a bouncing, soaring finale. Pulling us along with it, we were whisked up into the clouds, borne aloft on an audacious ebullience that made one want to laugh out loud.

The lengthy ovation testified to the power of a performance that surely ranks among the absolute finest that the CBSO has given in years. The years ahead with Kazuki Yamada are going to be very exciting.