The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s concerts are currently marketed under a number of categories, such as ‘discover’, ‘pure emotion’ and ‘raise the roof’. This concert’s category was ‘relax and revitalise’ – a description more apt for a weekend spa break, perhaps. Thankfully, the performances defied such banal categorisation this evening and were all the better for it.

Steven Osborne was the superlative soloist in Mozart’s broodingly melancholic Piano Concerto in C minor, K.491. The orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, Edward Gardner, shaped the ominous introduction in broad, legato brushstrokes and unleashed tempestuous first violins to create an effectively tense backdrop for the soloist’s entry. Mozart’s genius here is to counter this stormy introduction with tenderness rather than defiance.

Osborne, initially hunched over the keyboard and looking suitably sombre, played with the utmost delicacy. He is clearly an ensemble musician, visibly engaging with the orchestra and Gardner throughout. There was fieriness, as well, in Osborne’s playing when required, such as when trading fierce exchanges with the orchestra in the first movement’s development or launching into the cadenza.

This concerto, like many of Mozart’s later works, is a showcase for woodwind players as well as the pianist. The woodwinds of the CBSO excelled themselves, particularly in the delightful major key interludes where Mozart admits light amongst the gloom. In the central slow movement, Osborne opened in a style that I could only describe as semplice, in the best sense of the word. The orchestra responded in turn and hit upon a magical sound: strings miraculously quiet and woodwind perfectly creamy. Gardner once again cultivated a legato sound, ensuring phrases really sang. After a capricious final theme and variations movement, Osborne treated us to a Beethoven Bagatelle as an encore, the Andante from the Op. 126 set. The orchestra and audience alike seemed captivated by the delicacy and sweetness of his playing.   

In rehearsal for the London première of Elgar’s first symphony, conductor Hans Richter reputedly declared to the players of the London Symphony Orchestra: "Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country." Clearly, the Austro-Hungarian conductor had a great deal of admiration for both the work and for the composer. Richter, the work’s dedicatee, had done much for the cause of British music. Certainly, British composers had much catching up to do at that point in the production of symphonies of note, let alone greatness, compared with their middle European colleagues. Richter’s comment was praise indeed, then.

It was clear that Gardner had given the symphony a lot of thought. If anything, there was a sense of too much head and not enough heart in his interpretation. It is no bad thing, of course, to eschew overt sentimentality in Elgar’s music. Indeed, elements of the performance brought to mind the composer’s own recording of the work, though the latter is far brisker and unsentimental in the extreme.

The opening Andante was everything the composer asked for (Nobilmente e semplice) with violas, restrained at first, singing out Elgar’s great melody above the deft tread of cellos and basses, building to a proud full orchestral sound that could not fail to raise the flattest of spirits. Gardner drove the big full orchestral climaxes swiftly and thrillingly, becoming extremely animated at these points, although it was hard to escape the feeling that he was struggling to enthuse the musicians with his various gestures at times. It was mainly in the calmer episodes of relative reflection between these big moments that the first movement failed to convince.

The second movement was daringly fast but, unfortunately, also something of a scramble for the players, with moments of uncharacteristic scrappiness in the ensemble which had not been present in the first half of the concert. Things settled down, however, with an effective transition into the Adagio third movement. Again, Gardner opted for a flowing tempo, preferring not to linger in the more affecting moments. There was some moving playing from the strings, here finding a lustre that had been lacking previously.

It was in the slow introduction to the final movement that it occurred to me that Gardner had thought particularly carefully about tempo relationships: the pulse here recalled both that of the opening tread in the first movement and the main tempo in the previous one. This was, perhaps, the most successful movement of the performance, with the central interlude having the emotional impact it should and the dashing passages either side really thrilling. The wrenching transition into the reprise of Elgar’s pervasive great opening melody, beginning one of the most astonishing codas in the symphonic literature, felt more unsettling than cathartic suggesting that this is ambiguous, complex, music rather than simple triumphalism. If the performance was not entirely successful on its own terms it certainly had me, at its close, thinking afresh about this great British work.