Artists respond. Not all artists, of course, and not all the time, but a great deal of art involves at its core a response to something specific: an action, a place, a moment. Where the visual arts excel in their ability to capture these things, music, being the least tangible of the arts and dependent on time, proves itself most powerful when responding to things similarly intangible and elusive: notions, emotions, states of change.

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla © Frans Jansen
Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla
© Frans Jansen

The two composers in Saturday’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall, Edvard Grieg and Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, were united in their efforts to do just this, responding respectively to the complex machinations and moods underlying theatrical narrative and the undulating actions of the sea.

In the case of Peer Gynt, considering how spectacularly bizarre is the story in Ibsen’s play, it’s easy to sympathise with the exasperation apparently felt by Grieg when attempting to create his incidental music (he described the play as “a terribly unmanageable subject”). And it’s likewise easy to conclude that, by extracting portions of this music and reassembling them into smaller-scale suites, Grieg’s material is thereby freed from the inscrutability and bafflement of Ibsen’s plot and allowed to speak as a sequence of loosely-connected portraits and vignettes responding to discrete emotional situations.

In this performance, though, they did a lot more than just speak. In hindsight, lightness of mood lasted barely a few minutes, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO clearly having fun with the foot-stomping folk fiddling that interrupts the Wedding Prelude’s more sweeping romantic ideas. But this was as long as the jollity lasted. We were confronted by a litany of laments, the one ascribed to Ingrid making the opening fun and larks a distant memory, its darkly ruminative music suggesting Grieg had draped the orchestra in a heavy velvet veil. The Death of Åse went further, an agonised hymn veering between harmonic simplicity and obliqueness, its chords refusing to ring true. The most ashen music of the evening, the CBSO sounded winded, as if they had taken a communal punch to the stomach.

Soprano Klara Ek’s rendition of Solveig’s Song fed into this same mood, perfectly balancing surface optimism with underlying pain. It was the musical equivalent of viewing something marvellous through tear-stained eyes, the orchestra almost reverently keeping their distance, giving the solo line space. Even Solveig’s Cradle Song, which ended the concert, conveyed a lot more than mere lullaby, Ek’s crystalline melody coloured by heaviness and resignation.

In the midst of such solemn hues, the famous Morning music sounded almost hollow – which managed to help it overcome its overplayed familiarity – and both the Arabian Dance and Anitra’s Dance felt similarly futile, coming across as flash-in-the-pan interludes or even digressions away from Grieg’s more emotionally potent focus. Apropos: the most stunning moment came in The Hall of the Mountain King. Too often regarded as a benign morsel of cheerful, troll-related shenanigans, here the CBSO Chorus revealed the music’s true colours, transforming it into a wild, bloodthirsty braying for violent vengeance, its exhilarating final accents now resonating to shouts of “slay him!”. Provoking a spontaneous round of applause, it was the heart-stoppingly effective high point of a performance that revealed anew the dark, troubled character that pervades so much of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music.

Gražinytė-Tyla has done much to introduce British audiences to music from her Lithuanian homeland. The concert opened with the first UK performance of another such work, Čiurlionis’ symphonic poem Jūra (The Sea). Composed over several years, from 1903 to 1907, the work is to a large extent encapsulated in the following lines, taken from a lengthy text Čiurlionis wrote with the same title: “Powerful sea. Vast, limitless, unmeasured. … there is no limit to your power, your greatness, your being infinite.”

It's this sense of infinity, of a limitless, ever-changing expanse that Čiurlionis conveys in his unique and unconventional response to the sea. Though clearly identifiable as an example of Strauss-infused high Romanticism, the combination of its considerable harmonic mobility, erratic behaviour and deliberately nebulous approach to structure sets the work apart from being just another tone poem. The sea, after all, has no clear structure, doesn’t fall into neatly-defined episodes, and likewise, Gražinytė-Tyla ensured that Jūra unfolded with such unpredictability that it swiftly proved remarkably disorienting. For the most part lacking clear episodic divisions, one was instead confronted by an unbroken vista – no signs of land! – definable only by its vastness and its volatility.

Oscillating between intimate chamber groupings and huge tutti swells, Čiurlionis’ response to the sea is a superb essay in the elemental, an engagement with transience and ephemerality littered with detail yet ever at the mercy of something immeasurably greater. With a seemingly unreachable horizon, this was music that could have gone on forever.

*****