Omer Meir Wellber, pianist Yeol Eum Son and the CBSO undertook a tough challenge in Birmingham on Thursday night with two works that would stretch them for completely different reasons. The first, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major, K467, is so well known it begs the question of what can be brought out from an interpretation of this piece that hasn’t been heard before? The scope for a fresh interpretation of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony offered far more opportunity for musical exploration, but also carried with it the risk of getting waylaid.

Omer Meir Wellber © Tato Baeza
Omer Meir Wellber
© Tato Baeza

This was a debut performance at Symphony Hall for Yeol Eum Son, and she chose a concerto with which she is clearly comfortable. She sat poised and evidently lost in the sumptuous string opening, apparently unperturbed by the full hall, before stating her intentions. Her phrasing was delicate, unhurried and generally well measured. She managed to emphasis the graceful playfulness of the first movement Allegro maestoso, while introducing something more profound in the Andante. Her touch was elegant and restrained, resisting the urge to dominate. Alas, I felt that I wanted something less inhibited from her, a greater injection of personality and perhaps a little less perfection. Although she played beautifully, I don’t feel as if she left her own stamp on the piece. I also thought some of the lower notes were lost in the balance with the orchestra.

Otherwise Wellber did extremely well with the concerto. The string playing of the CBSO was first rate, and he brought out the bassoon part in the Andante in a way that I have never noticed before. Bassoonist Marceau Lefèvre has a tremendously resonate tone and sensed the lyrical quality perfectly. He deserves a mention here in addition to being singled out from the orchestra to take a bow at the end of the concerto. Even though it was not a particularly big part, for me this was the revelation I wanted from the concerto. I have no idea how many times I have heard the so-called “Elvira Madigan”, but I will listen to it slightly differently from now on, which is a large part of what live performances are all about.

I like watching Wellber conduct. He is very passionate and physical in his approach and no ambiguity remains about his intentions. His interpretation of the Bruckner symphony was grounded on an understanding of the spiritual aspects of the composer and his work. That spirituality emerges right from the transcendental opening of the Seventh, and ebbs and flows throughout all four movements in a variety of guises from meditative horns with trombones and tuba in a brass choir, to bombastic joy with trumpets and timpani in unrestrained celebration. Indeed, the 18-strong brass orchestrations, including five Wagner tubas, were also the most obvious link to the composer’s own instrument, the organ. Wellber clearly understood this nuance to the soundscape, emphasising the organ-like dynamic swells to great effect.

I was not convinced that Wellber always had the CBSO entirely with him. There were some very uncharacteristic minor imperfections, such as a couple of hesitant entries, an odd repetitive phrase that went awry, and an occasional tuning issue in the horns. They were only slight distractions, but being used to hearing the CBSO in impeccable form, I cannot say that this was the best I have heard them. Nonetheless, most of the time the orchestra and conductor were as one, and there were some magical moments, especially where the dynamics dropped, or rose in tutti crescendo in the last two movements. These peaks of spiritual revelation were simply inspirational. Generally, the performance of the symphony started off reasonably well and became increasingly engrossing as it went on, particularly with the Scherzo and Finale being truly uplifting, bringing the earlier themes back into a coherent whole by the end.

***11