Neither conductor Andrew Manze nor soloist Francesco Piemontesi entered the auditorium with great presence or swagger. Both are unassuming, neither has that great physical presence that immediately commands attention. But at the podium and on the piano stool, they immediately began to look comfortable, transformed by being in their rightful place. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who were already waiting in their seats, were clearly already in their comfort zone, as evidenced by the way they illuminated the orchestral opening of Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25, (K503). They were faultless in tone and balance and gave the concerto an orchestral warmth that is essential to playing Mozart. It is the subtle things that made the warmth, such as opting for rotary rather than piston-valve trumpets, and the discipline of the woodwind and timpani in maintaining balance with the strings.

Andrew Manze © Chris Christodoulou
Andrew Manze
© Chris Christodoulou

Francesco Piemontesi is a soloist with great technical ability and virtuosity. He went on to demonstrate this in a short gift piece immediately prior to the interval where he showboated his speed with dazzling aplomb. Mozart’s concerto posed him no insurmountable challenges in that regard. Musically he clearly has an affinity with Mozart too, which was most evident in his sublime diminuendo phrasing. Despite this I never felt completely moved by the performance, nor totally absorbed. It was masterful, but not magical.

On the other hand, Andrew Manze’s performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms , was both masterful and magical. Although the Requiem is some seventy minutes long, there was not a moment when I was not fully engrossed. Beginning with some gorgeously resonant bowing from the basses and cellos, Manze created a tension in the acoustic that he shaped, moulded, folded and manipulated perfectly, remaining undaunted by the magnitude of the work nor by the 180 strong assembly of singers and instrumentalist facing him. Indeed, it was remarkable just how much they trusted him, and he held them entirely in the palms of his hands as he coaxed delicate whispers in pianissimo and sucked out the breath from their diaphragms in majestic and unrestrained fortissimo.

The CBSO Chorus were at their very best. I have seen them a number of times and hold them in the highest regard, but in this piece and under Manze’s baton, they excelled themselves. Each section held its own and the distinction between the alto and soprano voices was especially clear. Yet this was not a concert of an orchestra supporting a chorus, or vice versa, but of two ensembles being played as one. At no point were any voices drowned out by the instruments, and each section played in complete sympathy with the others. The timpani (played by Antoine Siguré) was perfectly weighted in the piano passages and thunderous in crescendo, exactly as it should be. The principal flautist (Veronika Klírová) was making some wonderful sweet lyrical songs from her part, and played particularly beautifully in the final few bars of the fifth movement.

The two principal voices of the requiem, a baritone and a soprano, were provided by Mark Stone and Eleanor Dennis respectively. Stone performed admirably, his lower register seemingly sharing some of the same resonance as the bowed basses and cellos in the opening bars of the first and second movements. His diction was excellent and he projected well, making full use of the acoustics in the hall. Dennis was a last minute substitution for soprano Susan Gritton, unfortunately unable to perform due to illness. Dennis sang the part with quite a heavy vibrato which suited the solemn and melancholic mood, and her performance of the fifth movement was one of the highlights of the evening.

I have rated this concert with four stars, though that should really be read as an average, with three stars for the first half and five for the second. With mention of a substitution and this being a “game of two halves”, I should stretch the football analogy one step further, by awarding “Man of the Match” to Andrew Manze. He was faultless in the Mozart and simply magnificent in the Brahms Requiem. The way he brought the orchestra to a climactic murmur in the final bars of the seventh movement was masterful, magical and memorable. Underneath his unassuming humble air lies an impassioned and irrepressible musicality that surprises and delights. Having entered the auditorium in such an understated way he had, by the end of the concert, earned the right to swagger off. I am pleased to say he did not.