Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega
Many a composer finds inspiration in their surroundings, depicting a variety of scenes from Spanish street life to the English countryside as well as the power of internal forces. This week's matinée took us north to a stormy Scottish coast and Finland's serene landscapes: Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture made a mighty introduction into the theme with vivid musical imagery brought to life by a CBSO in top form. Its orchestral storm took its time to brew, ardently stirred by Edward Gardner, but once unleashed, it came with full force, crashing the cellos' snarling waves against the rocks, blown over by gusty high wind.

Wild and unpredictable as is the Scottish sea, concert performances can be equally so: as if driven by this storm, Lars Vogt delved into Mozart's Jeunehomme concerto with gusto. While I personally have a love-hate relationship with Symphony Hall's garish, hard-sounding grand piano that may or may not turn out to flatter the music, Vogt's stroke could be velvety soft as well as coquettishly agile, matching Mozart's bold treatment of the piano in the first movement. Yet as the concerto progressed, one felt that perhaps there was a little too much wind in Vogt's sails. His playing seemed strangely sloppy and unfocussed: There was a perceptible imbalance between both hands with a dominance in the bass, whereas the right hand, out of synch with its sibling, stood out with frequent rushed cues and notes skipped running frantically along the keys.

The second movement piano accompagnato / aria pointed towards a more collected interpretation, but only in the crazed Rondo's minuetto insertion did Vogt emanate the necessary calm – quite surprisingly, as he whirled off the third movement at formidable break-neck speed. While his playing left some things to be desired, the orchestra never fell behind in this madcap race. Very well articulated and nicely textured with beautiful dynamic developments it spiralled up after the piano.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra © City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
With the concerto, the programme had quickly sailed all the way east to the land of a thousand lakes and anniversary composer Jean Sibelius, whom we picture standing on one of them, looking out onto the calm waters, until a noise draws his gaze upwards. He later records in his diary: “...I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, what beauty! [...] A low refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature, mysticism and life's Angst!” Reading about his excitement on seeing a formation of swans pass overhead, one can but wonder how this could have made such an impression on the man, but hearing its reverberation in his Fifth Symphony, one cannot help being drawn into this time-stopping, slightly mystical moment as the birds “disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming solar ribbon.”

Eerily rustling strings grew the figurative reeds surrounding the lake and a creepy, oppressive atmosphere, before brilliant, shining brass took over, combining forces for one of Sibelius' grand crescendos that crested and washed over the listener with elemental force, and that smashed up against one entire body rather than only entering one's ears. The second movement pizzicato cues, precise to perfection, displayed the orchestra's enormous dramatic tension that discharged into the final movements opening, racing tremolos. Never did the musicians show any sign of tiring despite the high speed and played with a solemn but taut energy.

In Gardner's take, always natural and controlled, Sibelius' "swan hymn" was more pacing than swinging and, perhaps necessarily so, at a slightly swifter clip, but no less memorable for it, evoking mental images of the majestic birds beating their wings above the awed composer. The high woodwinds delivered their gorgeous chant-like theme with moving emoition, which eventually gave way for yet another elemental, incredibly powerful crescendo that was crowned by the closing orchestral stabs, gripping, mesmerising, awe-inspiring chords, thrown out with absolute precision. This. Was. Big.