At first I was a little baffled by the choice of programme. Usually there is something obvious linking the pieces together. A common theme or thread, notions of an era or similarities of form. Granted, Mozart and Hummel will often sit beside each other in the latter of these respects, but the addition of Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings seemed more of an acknowledgement of the paucity in repertoire that combines the three, than any neat or logical fit. Therefore, I can proffer no explanation why the programme worked so well, other than the artistic chemistry between the performers.

Gabriela Montero © Shelley Mosman
Gabriela Montero
© Shelley Mosman

Arguably the sheer versatility of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra also played a part. The fine acoustics of Birmingham’s historic Town Hall obviously suited them, for they greatly impressed me with the first three movements of Mozart’s Symphony no. 33 in B flat major, K319. They understood the themes with their delicately balanced forms, elegant expositions, and developments. The symphony is full of humour and in this regard the orchestra, under Concertmaster Willi Zimmermann, exploited every nuance of playfulness. The interplay between string and woodwind was exact and the whole symphony was played with a refined approach. There was unity in the playing and no section vied for prominence to the detriment of any other. They nailed the first three movements.

Stark contrast in the fourth movement and, alas, I was left wanting. While I understand that early Mozart is often safe and secure, his last three symphonies written in Salzburg afford us a glimpse of the embryonic passion that he would later reveal in his “Jupiter” Symphony, and demonstrate why he came to feel so stifled by his home town. For me this was an opportunity for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to push the boundaries a little, to liberate themselves from the civilised restraint of the preceding movements. Not too much, just a bit louder and crisper on a sforzando here and there, a tad more frenetic on the violin’s faster ornamentations, and some slightly more audible horns. It was an opportunity the orchestra chose not to take. While the playing was wonderfully tight, it didn’t reach its adventurous potential.

Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major, K449, in the second half of the programme, contained greater variety and contrast and had all the beautifully phrased form and poise of the symphony without lacking that final oomph. This was thanks to the outstanding performance and leadership of pianist Gabriela Montero. When Mozart wrote this concerto, he had matured in style, having been liberated from the creative shackles of Salzburg for five years. Therefore, part of the dynamic contrast is in the music itself rather than just the performance. Nonetheless, Montero magically animated this greater breadth of emotion, from simple fun to complex gravitas, accentuating both jovial and profound. Throughout the several changes of mood there was never any confusion in Montero’s interpretation or purpose.

Alison Balsom © Hugh Carswell
Alison Balsom
© Hugh Carswell

Neither could it ever be said of the evening’s other star performer, trumpeter Alison Balsom, that her musical intentions were ambiguous. Her approach to the Hummel Trumpet Concerto in E flat major was as refreshing as it was personal. From the opening bar Balsom was locked inside her own musical world, visibly reacting to each sway and dynamic pulse without the slightest inhibition. It was as if inside her head she were playing alone at home without an audience, and in this zone she produced a most intelligent and exhilarating interpretation. Although I tend to prefer Hummel’s concerto played on a B flat trumpet with its more powerful and muscular voice, I could not help but be won over by Balsom’s sweet and warm tone, her crisp articulation, velvet slurs and scintillating unforced high register. This was Hummel’s score, but with Balsom’s signature all over it. I enjoyed every exquisite note.

The pinnacle of the evening for me was the culmination of the two star soloists and the magnificent chamber orchestra in Shostakovich’s Concerto no. 1 in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, Op.35. If I was left wanting a stark contrast in the final movement of the Mozart symphony, I was compensated here a hundred-fold. The opening piano chord with muted trumpet created an intensity that the orchestra took up and maintained until the end. Montero alternately powered and skipped on the keyboard hammers, while Balsom gave a masterclass in trumpet tonguing, articulation, and projection. The highlights of the piece were the muted trumpet section at about the halfway point, expressing sorrow and beauty in a way that Russian composers seem to understand better than most, and the emphatic finale. It should not have worked in a programme with Mozart and Hummel. But it absolutely did.