Mozart wasn't afraid to send the soloist into the highest reaches of their instrument when he wrote his Fourth Violin Concerto. Baiba Skride wasn't afraid to go there. Better still, she seemed to enjoy the view. Her lean, brilliant sound was a formidable fit for Mozart's exuberant wealth of musical ideas. From the opening fanfare theme to the étude-like passages and cascading melodies of the soloist's entrance all the way up the fingerboard, she soared through technical challenges as if they were a mere morning stretch. You would of course expect such technical mastery, but you had to admire the ease of Skride's playing.

Baiba Skride © Marco Borggreve
Baiba Skride
© Marco Borggreve

Her moderate, pleasant vibrato gave her playing a nice texture and prevented the tone going soggy in the uppermost range where many a violinist would be tempted to use a bigger vibrato just to be on the safe side of intonation. Her intonation was very precise but for very few occasions, where full focus lay on clearness and lightness of her tone. It was also this very sound that easily kept her floating above the full, rich sound of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

In Haydn's preceding Symphony no. 103 in E flat major, Andris Nelsons had already set the overall tone of the concert as a gentler one, occasionally exceeding a mezzo forte, and shaping the CBSO's flexible sound into a very full yet lean, clean sonic mould. He worked with a huge variety of dynamic nuances that Skride readily took over for her Mozart.

After all the beaming smiles and goodnatured qualities of the Haydn and Mozart, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor opened up an entirely different view. There was plenty of the idiomatic Russian soul in the opening theme that sees the soloist confess those few bars to the audience. It was an honest, heartfelt opening and imbued with such a melancholy that I haven't experienced before. It had me wondering whether it took a certain geographical proximity to Prokofiev's native Russia, and that perhaps you can only create and impress upon the music you play such longing when you've experienced many long, cold winters yourself.

This concerto was also an opportunity for Skride to show a harsher articulation. Almost biting in the first movement, bow hairs flew, and in the huge, hard pizzicatos, her sound appeared to get an additional dimension and open up a huge, hollow space. After the light, floating atmosphere of the second movement, both the CBSO and Baiba Skride let rip in the concerto's final movement, a frenzied, raving close and an intoxicating performance of this highly concentrated, dense music. Had there been a typical "bravo-man", I would have agreed with him to express one's enthusiasm immediately after the last note had faded.

This rousing quality of the performance, however, was not only due to a technically immaculate performance. It was the complete harmony on stage, the way all three musical parties communicated with each other and exerted a positive interdependence. It was a display of musicians who have known each other for many years, who trust each other and have come to feel one another's intentions before they are expressed. It was an atmosphere of mutual support and understanding so Nelsons could give the CBSO plenty of freedom.

It was this laid back mood that allowed Nelsons to lounge on the banister of his podium, to sink behind his music stand in descrescendi (where the orchestra seemed to anticipate his next move merely by the creaking of the podium), only to jump out from behind it like a Jack-in-the-Box with the next accent, balance on one leg and even causally put his baton aside (or drop it).

It was thus that the surprising grand pauses in the robust, magnificent minuetto of Haydn's closing Symphony no. 104 in D major were as precise as could be, playing with Birmingham Symphony Hall's excellent acoustics and long reverb. It was with Nelsons unconventional, sparse gestures that the final movement's lavish cascades were played with appropriate weight without being stodgy. It was a delightful concert and I shall be sad to see Nelsons depart from Birmingham, but I shall also be looking forward to hearing a lot more of Baiba Skride during her coming time as the CBSO's Artist in Residence.

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