It finally looks like we might get some "real", cold winter, but the chill of the icy wind blowing through Birmingham's town center was soon to be dispelled by the parching heat of an afternoon in the life of Debussy's faun. He was joined in today's matinee by a Sibelian hero and the passionate love of Robert and Clara Schumann. The works by composers that had just about reached their early thirties at the time of composition were matched by two radiant young performers joining the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. “Meeting a force” is how the LA Times described Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla's Hollywood Bowl debut and prophesied that before long she would simply be known as “Mirga”. Great expectations, and she sure didn't disappoint!

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Vern Evan
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Vern Evan

She allowed complete freedom in the  wide, soft opening flute lines of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune , and moulded the CBSO with elegant movements not unlike those of a dancer. She established an atmosphere of great calm without losing the sense of underlying excited tension and shimmering of heat.

23-year-old pianist Beatrice Rana completed the line-up and seemed ideal casting for Schumann's only completed piano concerto that had been written for – and championed by – Schumann's wife Clara. While the opening call to attention and the following lines were slightly blurred by a lot of pedal, her playing was remarkably unobtrusive, her movements minimal and modest, her phrasing clear. Supported by a softer orchestral tone with strong emotional focus, she floated through the first movement with only the briefest instance of rush when an immense distance on the keyboard just could not be travelled safely without use of a small rubato.

Beatrice Rana © Marie Staggat
Beatrice Rana
© Marie Staggat
She brought out the sweeping upwards lines in the Allegro vivace with a round, full-bodied sound despite distinctly unpretentious playing. It drew all strength of stroke from her fingers and wrists, supported by the forearms; hardly ever did she use the full arm, let alone body for emphasis, gestures remained small, the wrists only lifting slightly to breathe. Minor ensemble issues where the melodic line appears in the orchestra and, in ornamented form, in the piano, were quickly caught and made for a stirring close, complemented by an equally wonderful encore, Liszt's transcription of Schumann's Widmung.

Schumann's concerto was followed by Jean Sibelius' Lemminkäinen Suite, a hugely original collection of symphonic poems based on the Finnish epos Kalevala that can be performed separately (as The Swan of Tuonela often is) as well as combined into great symphonic narrative. The order of the two inner movements has been the focus of discussion for some time, and today's performance showed that it still is. Where the famous Swan of Tuonela was stated in the programme notes as following the opening Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, the conductor announced reverse order. While the order stated in the programme makes sense in terms of the events referred to, the order presented made for a compelling musical narrative.

Quickly overcoming an intonation issue in the woodwind section, they swept past, creating a densely textured fabric with just enough transparency to let individual register lines shine. The following "movement" shows Lemminkäinen in Tuonela where he fails in his task to kill the Swan of Tuonela, upon which his body is cut to pieces and thrown into the river (Finnish folklore – don't ask!). The musical picture was painted with cold, hard tremolos with a metallic aftertaste, welling up in well-coordinated waves. The CBSO then let Tuonela's swan float majestically on his river; we hear the hero tiptoe closer to his target in pizzicato strings, yet a funeral march progress already indicates his failure and impending fate.

Even after nearly two hours of high-energy-music making, neither orchestra nor conductor showed any sign of exhaustion. If anything, they stepped up their game and gave the final tone poem their full power, with well-balanced percussion and brilliant brass, leaving the listener with a sense of quiet, glowing exhilaration. The high level of communication between orchestra and conductor had been evident from the first bars of the Debussy, and where the musicians had initially seemed reluctant to follow Gražinytė-Tyla into the very big gestures, they threw themselves into the big fortes as her gestures grew both in reach and intensity, yet always retained that dance-like grace and elegance.

The hype around this concert created by the local newspaper may have seemed a bit over the top at the time, but now appears fully justified. Never before have I been mesmerised by a conductor and a performance in such a way, and I look forward to seeing more of Mirga in the very near future.

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