Anyone looking for an evening of calm, reflective music would find they’d come to the wrong concert. It was rather like being granted a masterclass in how to represent the infinite nuances suggested by the performance direction “fortissimo”. I was particularly looking forward to the opener, as Sibelius’ Karelia Suite was the first piece of live classical music that grabbed my attention as a teenager. I presumed the dynamic fanfares would be in safe hands with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brass, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Elisabeth Leonskaja © Jean Mayerat
Elisabeth Leonskaja
© Jean Mayerat

The essence of patriotism, the suite was written for a pageant at Helsinki University, marking a thinly-disguised attack on attempts to “Russify” Finland’s eastern province of Karelia. The listener is transported effortlessly to Finnish forest landscapes, gently at first in hushed, poised tones, with a crescendo and accelerando leading to an exhilarating march. Brass joins forces with percussion, including underlying bass drum and off-beat tambourine. This evening, as the relentless force reached its full intensity, I could feel a grin spreading from ear to appreciative ear. The central “Ballade” movement quietened matters down, showing contrasting colour, rich woodwind tones, stately and emotive, with an especially expressive cor anglais solo by Ilid Jones. Then back to the march with a vengeance, layers and texture built up towards the majestic final flourish. Yes, still one of my favourites.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone in the packed audience would make a crack about the famous Morecambe and Wise sketch, but I’m happy to report that Elisabeth Leonskaja played all the notes of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor in the right order. And a stunning performance it was too – I could have listened to her all day. She exuded an intriguing combination of business-like focus on the task in hand and passion for the music and her instrument. The result was a rare bell-like quality. Ms Leonskaja’s sensitive and masterful playing was complemented by a very watchable attitude that was completely at one with the music, including an endearing flourish of the arms at the end of fast passages, fists clenched, so powerful that it threatened to propel her into the front row.

Despite being a recognised icon of Norwegian music, the concerto was in fact composed while Grieg was in Denmark. The composer would play or conduct it himself on his international tours. The familiar opening flourish, the A–G sharp–E falling figure, echoed Norwegian folk music and became a trademark of Grieg’s. From the outset, the interaction between orchestra and soloist – in the writing and in this interpretation – was fascinating, the various subjects developed and decorated with immense skill. The overall impression was of excitement and energy, although the more measured passages, such as the muted strings at the opening to the Adagio and an exquisite flute solo, were also particularly memorable. For the final clamorous section, the piano’s sound was rather swallowed up by the orchestra at full throttle, but the piano came to the fore again for a delicious encore in the form of a Mozart sonata. This complete contrast with the Grieg – thoughtful yet dance-like, with intricate ornamentation requiring superb lightness of touch – showed off to perfection Ms Leonskaja’s connection with her instrument. Afterwards, the bar was abuzz with her praises.

Just when we thought the evening couldn’t get any more dramatic, guest conductor Alexander Vedernikov, formerly of the Bolshoi, demonstrated a remarkable affinity with compatriot Rachmaninov and directed the players through a blistering performance of his Symphony no. 1 in D minor. Vedernikov’s expressive arms seemed to reach for the roof and his over-the-collar hair bounced with vigour. The programme notes included the headings “A night in hell… From the ashes… Defying destiny… Grand passions”, and the music was correspondingly angst-ridden. It wasn’t what I would describe as easy to listen to, as there was so much going on at once, and the overall dynamic was very loud, but one couldn’t help being totally absorbed. Occasional lyrical string and wind passages offset the noise and clamour, and drew out the overwhelming emotion: romantic, rich and sad. A motif representing fate pervades the piece and menace gets the upper hand over brief glimpses of relief.

The CBSO made a cracking job of the musical fireworks announcing the finale, leading eventually, exhaustingly, to a sudden change of pace with an arresting stroke of the gong, leaving the audience holding its collective breath in the ensuing silence, before the perfectly placed closing notes. There was nothing silent about the applause!

****1