Anticipating a matinee with very familiar music and a celebrated pianist, I found that what I enjoyed most about this concert was the discovery of two great talents new to Birmingham. The afternoon witnessed a first performance at Symphony Hall for conductor Joana Mallwitz and guest pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, and both artists were deservedly well received.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Eva Vermandel
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Eva Vermandel

Kolesnikov was a last-minute stand in for the advertised Gabriela Montero, who had unfortunately sustained an injury that caused her to withdraw. While disappointed – as I know just how good Montero is – that cloud of disappointment had a silver lining, even a golden one, in affording Kolesnikov to take to the stage in a winning substitution.  

The young London-based Siberian-born pianist began Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor competently enough, but for the first two or three minutes I sensed we were in for a well performed but otherwise unremarkable rendition. Then, almost imperceptibly, he relaxed into the piece and became one with it. The next thirty minutes were compelling as the concerto became less something he was playing and more a world he was inhabiting. He was increasingly absorbed into that world, physically and emotionally in the zone, and he was able to draw the audience along to that happy place with him. His touch and technique were of an impeccable high standard, but they mattered less than the excitement and playfulness he conjured up in his interpretation. Nothing was rushed, no phrase squeezed in, no dynamic too loud or too soft. All was well-tempered, yet nothing was pedestrian.

He managed to inject real character into his phrasing, dancing energetically through the Russian folk motifs and embracing the sweeping grand romantic themes. Still under thirty, Kolesnikov is a former BBC New Generation artist who has a number of international recitals still to come this season. Judging by this performance, they should be worth catching if you can acquire a ticket.

While gifted Russian pianists are not exactly a rare species, top flight women conductors are still clearly under-represented. All the more reason to celebrate one who came to Symphony Hall and made the CBSO sound as good as I have ever heard them under any baton, Joana Mallwitz. Only a couple of years older than Kolesnikov, she walked on stage demurely. But upon mounting the podium she raised her posture, tall in heels and trousers, she stood Amazonian before the orchestra, a commanding presence. This was a lady very definitely in charge. Her crystal clear conducting style, using a baton and including a lot of emphatic arm movement and direct eye contact, left the fine musicians of the CBSO absolutely no doubt of what she was demanding and expecting. Furthermore, the opening work, Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galanta, was a perfect opportunity for her to demonstrate what she could do with the orchestra. 

Kodály’s dances are full of colour, dynamics and passion. Starting with a rather sombre and profound musical phrase in the cellos and echoed throughout the sections, the mood soon shifts lyrical with a long and beautiful clarinet section. The CBSO clarinettist, Oliver Janes, had an enduring moment of glory, coaxing the most sweet, smooth, subtle and sublime sounds from his instrument. The dances become increasingly energetic as the piece moves on, though with certain phrases reappearing and changing among the instruments along the way, until a Presto finale, where Wallmitz was pressing the orchestra as if she were atop an old stagecoach, whipping the horses.

Although the programme did not have any obvious connecting tissue, it did not seem to matter on this occasion. Having brought out the sun-drenched dances of south-central Europe and then gorged in the unbridled power and passion of the Russian soul, it was Scotland’s turn to musically inspire with Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor. Yet more moods and sentiments were developed by the baton of Wallmitz. Strings were solid, the basses and cellos sounding majestic and stately, and the French horns were perfectly balanced. The woodwind section enjoyed a good workout too, with a particularly enjoyable pairing of flute and bassoon at one juncture. Although not one of my favourite symphonies, Wallmitz brought it alive, made it fresh and vibrant, filled it with interest, and by closing chords of the final movement I was enjoying every triumphant moment.

In all three pieces I was able to close my eyes and lose myself in the visual imagery the music was suggesting. This was a thoroughly enjoyable matinee concert that introduced two strong performers to Birmingham Symphony Hall. I am confident that there will be audience demand to see them both return.