The undoubted highlight of this generous programme from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a sensational performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. It was rich pickings, however, with the concerto being sandwiched by substantial symphonic works either side. The reason for the juxtaposition of these three masterpieces was not obvious aside from the fact that at least two of them are guaranteed crowd-pullers. And pull in the crowds they did.

Benjamin Grosvenor © operaomnia
Benjamin Grosvenor
© operaomnia

Especially welcome was the inclusion of Elgar’s symphonic study, Falstaff. Elgar was an admirer of Richard Strauss’ works, his tone poems in particular. When I hear Falstaff I can’t help but think of the similarities between the antics of Falstaff and Don Quixote from Strauss’ eponymous tone poem. In both works the protagonist is mostly represented on the cello and this is surely no coincidence. Elgar’s Falstaff is the more serious portly knight from Shakespeare’s Henry IV rather than the comical character featured in the The Merry Wives of Windsor. Though the composer denied overt programmatic content, the music is structured around various episodes featuring Sir John Falstaff and his companion, Prince Hal – heir to the throne.

Jac van Steen wasted no time in establishing Falstaff’s character in musical terms with a confident, swaggering start. It was a joy to see a conductor so very much at home with this orchestra and an orchestra so much at home in this repertoire. Various members of the orchestra excelled in bringing the cowardly knight to life, from a particularly throaty contrabassoon to rude-sounding horns. Later, in the Boar’s Head episode it wasn’t hard to imagine drunken goings on with cantankerous solos from the principal cellist and bassoonist. Van Steen paced the piece excitingly throughout, yet he still found time to appreciate these delicious details in the score.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto is so well known as a concert hall favourite and showpiece that it helps to be reminded what a rich and substantial piece of music it is. Benjamin Grosvenor dispatched those famous opening chords in a serious yet unpretentious manner that was to characterise his interpretation of the piece. After a buoyant orchestral introduction, Grosvenor was off like a rocket. This first movement was always mobile, never rhetorical in his hands. He is an especially attentive musician, always taking care to listen to players accompanying him in the orchestra.

Grosvenor also reminded me what a dark piece this is. It is composed in a minor key, of course, but the final orchestral outburst before the soloist’s cadenza is a veritable declamation of despair. I have written previously about this young pianist’s astonishing talent for bringing out the darker elements in music and this was territory he was to explore once again in the cadenza. He was dizzyingly accurate in the more virtuosic passages with every note clearly audible in lacerating arpeggiations. He and the orchestra built towards a furious climax.

Muted strings provided a necessary balm in the second movement but even here the music aches rather than consoles. Elspeth Dutch’s horn solo set the seal on a sublime opening. In the final movement, Grosvenor dared to risk a rapid tempo with touches of rubato but this approach paid off and resulted in some thrilling exchanges with the orchestra. Marie-Christine Zupancic’s gorgeous flute solo lightened the mood for the central section of the movement and a fabulous reprise of this in the coda by the trumpets brought the house down.

Whatever came next was always going to struggle to achieve such glorious standards. Brahms’ Third Symphony was a curious choice to follow the two pieces in the first half. It was given a fine performance by the CBSO that might be regarded as traditional in most respects. Van Steen did not hang about in the two opening chords and charted an energised course through the first movement such that the opening section seemed to pass in a flash. The conductor’s gear change from near suspended animation in the mysterious climax of the movement’s development back to those reprised, supercharged chords seemed incongruous, however, and the coda felt rather laboured.

The inner movements were superbly played and there was lovely woodwind playing. Van Steen’s drawing out each time of Brahms’s plaintive melody in the third movement did nothing to help the flow, but the conductor’s less than subtle gear changes did finally pay off in the final movement. The sotto voce opening was solemnly paced, almost funereal, but this only heightened the excitement of the Allegro proper. Also, Van Steen broadened the tempo at the height of the central climax, allowing the trumpets to sound particularly heroic. As the movement wound down in tension and the magical return of Brahms’ first movement material beckoned it was clear that conductor and orchestra were thinking as one in this most satisfying of symphonic conclusions.