Unexpected programme changes can be disconcerting but this Anvil concert with two alterations was no less rewarding or exciting for the loss of Ligeti’s Concerto romanesc (replaced by Le Tombeau de Couperin) or the absence of star pianist Yuja Wang whose indisposition brought an equally formidable pianist in the shape of Denis Kozhukhin. The scheduled works by Prokofiev and Brahms were intact and both were given arresting performances, thanks in no small measure to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s total grip of style and form and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s superbly responsive playing.

Denis Kozhukhin © Marco Borggreve
Denis Kozhukhin
© Marco Borggreve

The evening began with Ravel’s four orchestrations from Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919), originally conceived for piano with each of its six movements dedicated to a friend lost in the Great War. Far from being a morbid work, it’s a tribute to the 18th-century composer François Couperin and teems with life. Gražinytė-Tyla coaxed much delicate colouration from the Birmingham players, with principal oboe John Roberts wistfully eloquent in the opening Prélude. A spirited Forlane, nothing restrained here, produced scintillation and deliciously fragrant woodwind phrases, while the sobriety of the Menuet charmed with its subtle melancholy. Quick-fire exchanges in the closing Rigaudon delivered zesty humour and a dash of primary colours with trumpet and horns to the fore and flute providing gentle mystery.

And on to the last of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos with a fearlessly accurate and athletic Kozhukhin following in the footsteps of two other eminent Russian pianists who have championed this work, Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Ashkenazy. There’s a brittle quality to this concerto and seems to combine elements of lyricism with a designer-style assemblage of nose-thumbing marches, scampering virtuosity and cartoon modernism that, either way, can be interpreted as a clever neoclassical work or a mere display piece. Striking to this performance was its dazzling spontaneity, where soloist and conductor were in total command of its ever-changing material, where pianistic pyrotechnics suddenly yield to gentle musing. Mocking or just playful, the second movement was as mechanistic as it was insouciant – a baleful march followed by a breezy boogie-woogie – contradictions that Prokofiev exploits (as Poulenc did) to great effect. The Toccata offered no let up to the ongoing frenzy and while not having the breathless quality of some performances it had the necessary bruising energy. Relief came in a poised Larghetto and its wonderful string theme developed with accumulating power. Ideas turn on a sixpence in the Vivo and its garishness and gentle ambiguities were fully realised by Kozhukhin and a superbly supportive CBSO.

After the interval, the Birmingham players gave an expansive account of Brahms’ Second Symphony, its first movement set out as a clear-sighted conception and its themes unfolding naturally. If the start was cautious, it was all smoothly blended and all the better for an intensifying emotional trajectory once the opening movement was fully underway. The Adagio flowed persuasively, noble and tender and aided and abetted by a glowing horn and warmth of string tone, its seeming tempo distortions making complete sense. Where the third was affectionate and gloriously playful the Finale was jubilant, its con spirito marked but not aggressively so, everything in place and moving logically towards an exhilarating close. Without doubt Gražinytė-Tyla has an intuitive grasp of this score and conveyed its dramas with absolute authority.

*****