Let’s begin at the end. The pair of encores that concluded each half of Thursday evening’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert clarified aspects of what had gone before them. As he played a superb pizzicato rendition of Burt Bacharach’s Say A Little Prayer, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason came alive, dancing around both melody and accompaniment simultaneously, evidently uplifted by both the music itself and the act of music-making. Yet the same wasn’t the case in Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major where, except for the cadenzas which displayed the same buoyant spirit, Kanneh-Mason had given a polite but disinterested performance. Haydn’s energy was rendered flat and lifeless, made worse by an enfeebled tone from the cello, and signs of communication between him and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla were essentially absent.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO
© Andrew Fox

Equally problematic had been the concert opener, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Gražinytė-Tyla’s approach was to polarise the music: all or nothing, massively intense or borderline non-existent. Such extremes created a sense of relentlessness through the more robust passages, whereas the exquisite shadowy colours that emerge later were almost impossible to hear. Coupled with a poor sense of shape, in terms of both direction (narrative) and focus (inner detail), it all made for a real slog.

The second half could not have been more different. Its encore was an arrangement for string orchestra of Thomas Adès’ O Albion, the sixth movement of his 1994 string quartet Arcadiana. Here was music delicately tilting between rapture and melancholy, steeped in that unique kind of acute nostalgia that the Welsh describe as “hiraeth”. It was the perfect conclusion to music that had inhabited similarly conflicted emotional states.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Andrew Fox

Not so much in Britten’s Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which was treated to the usual mix of mischief and grandiosity (though the viola sequence was surprisingly doleful, a mood continued by the cellos, creating a nice contrast in this context). In Weinberg’s Flute Concerto no. 1, though, the emotional landscape was revealed to be highly complex. Driven along by Marie-Christine Zupancic – undoubtedly the star of the evening, overflowing with character throughout – the first movement gave the impression of upbeat cheekiness, manifesting in a welter of rapid-fire passages (delivered with absolute clarity) that, for the first time in the concert, brought everyone on stage to life. Yet the second movement mined such a weighty, dark-hued vein, underpinned by a steady pulse that by turns sounded reassuring and unsettling, that it made one retrospectively wonder whether that first movement had been all it appeared to be. The CBSO strings were beautifully measured here, a veiled presence that only made the atmosphere more disquieting. No answers were provided by the final movement, Gražinytė-Tyla striking a balance between superficial lightness and the increasing sense that the music was actually a lot more elusive than it seemed. This only made it more mysterious and engrossing, Zupancic enhancing the effect with a more breathy tone and adopting an air of nonchalance. By the end, the only thing that seemed certain was that this was far from being the whole story.

The most ravishing example of emotional equivocality came in Elgar’s short Sospiri. Gražinytė-Tyla took a similar approach to the Vaughan Williams, but here it worked wonderfully, making the most of the work’s abrupt poignant inflections and potent wistfulness. Yet the ambiguous openness of the piece was brought to the fore, not presented as sighs of obvious happiness or sorrow, but a more inscrutable amalgam allowing for both possibilities. In a way that was therefore hard to accurately define or describe, it was nonetheless deeply moving.

***11