Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s reputation in this country is rapidly rising, drawing on her star quality, and based on the calibre of the interpretation she gave of one of the most popular works in classical music, it’s easy to see why. What was only her second Prom with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra could have been billed as an event-concert for the attention it drew, but there was no sign whatsoever of style over substance. Thoughtful programming is always welcome and the juxtaposition of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Gerald Barry showed obvious thematic consideration on several levels which sparked immediate thought and gave the works an interesting context.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3 is a concert hall favourite, regularly used as padding for thin evenings. I don’t recall hearing a reading of the piece as sophisticated as Gražinytė-Tyla’s though; velvety strings in the opening and a well-controlled flute solo were among the highlights, but it was the level of balance and delicacy that really astonished, the contrast in dynamic and volume unusually clear in a venue such as the Royal Albert Hall. There were moments when her interpretation lacked blood, but the attention to detail, particularly in the strings was most enjoyable. She has a flair for racking up the tension by reducing the volume to draw the audience in. It’s a habit that stood her in good stead for the final work of the evening.

From the optimism and revolutionary zeal of Fidelio to the humorous acrobatics of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major from 1931 for which Leila Josefowicz joined the orchestra. A busy, bustling brass opening gave way to cheerful, carefree leaps on the instrument by Josefowicz, whose tendency to appear to play towards the orchestra gave the piece a strong sense of communicative cohesion. Josefowicz’s phrasing felt quirky and individualistic, and the accuracy and colour of the bowing belayed the speed of her interpretation. A sense of weariness and brooding in the final movement was nicely done before Josefowicz flashed back into life with a rejuvenated, frantic finale. With Lachen verlernt by Esa-Pekka Salonen she provided a rewarding encore.

Leila Josefowicz © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Leila Josefowicz
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Gerald Barry is becoming increasingly associated with Beethoven and indeed the last Barry piece I saw was an enjoyable performance of his Beethoven with that composer’s First and Second Symphony at the Barbican in June. This concert saw the world première of his Canada, a piece prompted by airport security in Toronto, a setting of the first three lines of the Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio, addressed at Canada, for tenor and orchestra. The piece went down well with the audience, drawing plenty of laughs, but I confess I found it excruciating, with its tedious repetition of “Canada”, not even redeemed by the bright and generous tenor of Allan Clayton and the black squall conjured by the CBSO.

Allan Clayton performs <i>Canada</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Allan Clayton performs Canada
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Gražinytė-Tyla’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor was a thrilling, original account. The famous first four notes in repetition segued together, signposting what would be bullet train fast tempi and subverting audience expectations of a traditional opening. The first movement was awash with orchestral detail with a fine limpid oboe solo. Gražinytė-Tyla’s attentions to texture were obvious, particularly in the second movement which saw fine silvery delivery evolve into bold military pomp. Elongated phrases which seemed to pour out from the orchestra were a delight; this was Beethoven played as he rarely is. The warmth of the deeper strings was highlighted in the third movement, where Gražinytė-Tyla’s fondness for playing with sound contrasts was deployed to supreme effect, reducing the orchestral sound to levels that really shouldn’t have worked in this venue, forcing the ears to concentrate to catch the thin strains, the tension worked out through an unpretentious climax. The level of musical intelligence behind the interpretation was formidable; Gražinytė-Tyla turned a classic into something fresh and exciting. Further such forays into Beethoven will be well worth hearing. An encore from JS Bach’s Suite no. 3 in D major was a most suitable palate-cleanser to this aural feast.