It wasn’t only Mitsuko Uchida’s hands that were agile. Her arrival on stage was accompanied by the deepest bow imaginable, bending from the waist until she resembled a tuning fork. Such Japanese formality was paired with a warm, glowing smile and a real connection with players and audience alike.

Mitsuko Uchida © Jean Radel
Mitsuko Uchida
© Jean Radel

But first the CBSO launched an astonishing and challenging programme with Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra. The composer having had composition lessons from Schoenberg, this was Webern’s first application of atonal music to a large ensemble. The passing of the melodic line from one instrument to another, known as Klangfarbenmelodie – “tone-colour melody” – yielded a blink-and-you-miss-it kaleidoscopic quality, enhanced by the orchestra’s expertise with the equally colourful dynamics. The trailblazing style resulted in a riot at the 1913 première. Quite the reverse tonight.

Nicely warmed up, the audience chirruped in anticipation as the stage was reorganised for Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. It was a rare sighting: this renowned interpreter of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven in Birmingham, especially working with a conductor, since Uchida’s usual preference is to direct from the piano herself. Simply entitling the programme “Andris Nelsons and Mitsuko Uchida” was clearly significant rather than merely über-literal. Uchida had a relaxed rapport with a vibrant Nelsons, but at the same time her attitude of absolute engagement with the orchestra betrayed the fact that she was used to leading the way. It was fascinating to witness someone so fully involved with the music when not actually playing, either hugging herself or tempted during the orchestra’s delicate opening to test out joining them in a few imaginary bars, hands perched six inches above the keys.

This was just one of six piano concertos written by Mozart in 1784. The same year, he bought a pet starling, which he documented as an excellent mimic of the finale’s seventeen-note theme, although with one or two pitch and timing issues. Tonight’s performers, needless to say, were spot on. Uchida’s technical brilliance, freshness and passion shone through the joyous optimism of the Allegro, developing the orchestral introduction and progressing to an engrossing solo passage. The lyrical warmth of the Andante, drawing out a vast range of emotions, and with particularly fine contributions from the woodwind, was echoed with great poise and feeling by the piano. During the Allegretto, Uchida perhaps had the starling in mind, as singing lips worked away in fast-paced time to the ever-increasing complexity of half a dozen variations. The vigour of the comic-opera-type coda was like the exhilaration of flapping wings.

Thankfully the soloist didn’t fly straight off, though. She returned after the interval to an even more pared-down stage set, carrying spectacles and a score of Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques so enormous that it belied its fifteen-minute duration. Off-duty musicians snuck into the auditorium – a sure sign that we were in for an unmissable treat. “Listen to the birds!” Messiaen had been urged while learning his craft, and this piece was a kind of global culmination of his feathery inspiration, having earlier used birdsong local to the Paris area as the source of melodic material in Réveil d’oiseaux. By contrast, Oiseaux Exotiques, commissioned by Pierre Boulez for his Domaine Musical, features the sounds and crucially the plumage colour of birds worldwide.

By no stretch of the imagination can this piece be described as an easy listen. But if you allow yourself to be transported from the realm of the classical concert hall to the mayhem of the tropical rainforest and other ornithological domains, complete with screeching minah birds, hammering laughing thrushes and a canopy of myriad other exotica, the effect is compelling. It’s as close as Messiaen got to a piano concerto, but without strings, the individual woodwind and brass instruments representing the cries of different birds, and the percussion – glockenspiel, xylophone and tam-tam in particular – working overtime on their explosive crescendos. Uchida virtually danced at the piano, immersed in the drama, finally emerging to an overwhelming ovation. Let’s hope she doesn’t take too long to migrate this way again.

Massive orchestral forces piled back onstage for what could only be described as an ecstatic conclusion to the evening. Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy varies between the sensual, with exquisite solos on flute and violin, and the imperious with rising trumpet fanfares. The gradations of orchestral texture were expertly applied, building to a stunning climax, the hall pulsating in a majestic C major fortissimo that penetrated the bones, while Nelsons kept the baton aloft to sustain the sound for as long as seemed humanly possible, and then some.

*****