Wednesday’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert featured a double surprise. The performer who made the most striking impression wasn’t the orchestra or soloist Isata Kanneh-Mason, but conductor Ilan Volkov; and, paradoxically, he made that impression by making himself virtually invisible. One might say he became more and more conspicuous by his absence. We’ve become accustomed to conductors with “something to say”, keen to mould great works according to their personal predilections. By contrast, Volkov seemed only interested in what the composers had to say, never conveying anything other than a clear, faithful reading of what lay in the score.

Ilan Volkov conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© Hannah Blake-Fathers | CBSO

To that end, the CBSO were entirely on board. Almost literally in Sibelius’ short maritime escapade The Oceanides, where they made much of the work’s tilt from chirpy relaxation into almost Straussian chiaroscuro, as well as its subsequent transport into passages of pure fantasy. There was the sense not only of music in constant flux, but tantalising in the way its focus felt just out of reach. Its bargain basement final climax notwithstanding, the work’s impressionistic soundworld was powerfully realised.

Their premiere of Freya Waley-Cohen’s new work Demon was similarly transparent, though this only revealed a paucity of substance. The piece promised much in an exciting opening sequence suggesting great speed at great depth, but what transpired was music that became far too fixated by its own velocity and flowing textures. It brought to mind those frilled lizards that are essentially defenceless but make themselves look frightening when threatened; whatever form of demon this was, it certainly lacked any kind of teeth.

Volkov’s unaffected approach exposed in a startlingly vivid way the duality in Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. On the one hand, the gentle moderation of his musical language, cautious and controlled, which the CBSO made sound truly gorgeous, rich and full with every detail clearly audible. Yet what emerged more was the contrasting strangeness of its structure and narrative. A highlight was the bassoon solo sequence in the first movement which, surrounded by a cloud of undulating strings, was revealed as the weirdly hypnotic moment that it is. The symphony’s lofty aspirations were similarly allowed to speak without any kind of milking or luxuriating. Indeed, one lost count of the number of times Volkov indicated he wanted less from the orchestra; only in the final movement did he clearly want more, but with none of the misty-eyed gloss that this music so often receives. It was all the more uplifting due to sounding simple, noble and true.

Isata Kanneh-Mason and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© Hannah Blake-Fathers | CBSO

In hindsight, such an unshowy approach as this was perfectly complemented by Isata Kanneh-Mason in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major. It didn’t seem so at first: the neutrality of her performance, nicely-shaped and articulated but lacking obvious passion or even a strong sense of personality, led one to wonder, beneath the accuracy, who she was, and where she was. One could make the case that this rendition of the concerto was more dutiful than anything else, yet as it continued the lack of fuss and exaggeration came to feel more and more ideal. As it was, Volkov made no attempt to tame Prokofiev’s touches of wildness, even playing up slightly its more romantically-inclined passages. The gear changes in the work (which often sounds like a complex machine) were outstandingly handled, Kanneh-Mason never faltering over the endless streams of notes, and everyone let loose just a bit for the fantastically opulent finale.

But it was ultimately Volkov who stole the show. His self-effacing, literal approach – effectively hiding in plain sight on the podium – was both marvellous and genuinely refreshing.