Finland and Hungary have distantly related languages, which seems as good an excuse as any for the CBSO to bookend last night’s visit to Sage Gateshead with Sibelius and Bartók, the one drawing on his country’s great book of mythology, the Kalevala, and the other filling his music with the characteristic folk melodies and rhythms from his native land.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Vern Evans
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Vern Evans

Sandwiched between them was Brahms’s Violin Concerto, written for the Hungarian violinist Joachim, and its final movement is infused with Hungarian dance music. Although I love most of Brahms’s music, I find the first movement of the Violin Concerto is long-winded and even a bit of a grind, so I was interested to see what the CBSO’s dynamic young conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and soloist Ning Feng would do with it. Gražinytė-Tyla began purposefully, with a quiet energy driving the music forwards, and although overall, this performance didn’t change my mind about that first movement, there was plenty to enjoy. Gražinytė-Tyla and Feng handled the frequent mood changes very deftly, slipping smoothly from raw power in the solo line and driving passion from the orchestra into moments of intimacy, Feng drawing us in with some extraordinary quiet playing. The cadenza was particularly beautiful; Feng was delicate and precise, and I felt as if I were listening to a Bach partita rather than a big, Romantic concerto, while the orchestra responded with tranquility when they returned before ramping up the energy for the big finale. The second movement, with Rainer Gibbons’s melting oboe solo, was relaxed but spoilt by a rather heavy final chord, before Gražinytė-Tyla plunged joyfully into the gypsy dance of the final movement. This was great fun, full of bounce and swagger, with a hint of a special, secret pleasure that the orchestra was longing to share with us.

Virtuosity was on display from every instrument in the orchestra when the CBSO returned after the interval for Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Bartók wrote the piece while living in America and already seriously ill with the leukaemia that would kill him, and rather like Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (written at around the same time, and in similar circumstances), the Concerto for Orchestra can stand as a summing-up of Bartók’s orchestral music. As well as giving lively solo and ensemble spots to every section, Bartók plays with unusual combinations of instruments – oboe and harp, sweet trombones set against a complex side-drum rhythm – and tonight the third movement ended in a moment of magic as piccolo player Diomedes Demetriades held a very long, quiet solo note against gentle touches from the timpani.

As in the Brahms first movement, the Bartók gave Gražinytė-Tyla plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her skillful handling of changing moods as the music veered from high-octane dynamism to introspection and pain. The third movement was wracked with agony, the piccolo and harp combining in their distress before wrenching sobs from the orchestra; later in the movement, the CBSO’s muted strings added a golden glow to the texture. After the tension in that final piccolo solo, Gražinytė-Tyla and the orchestra threw themselves with gusto into the last two movements, with crazed trombones sliding around the music and swinging solos from across the orchestra, before strummed strings caught everyone up into a mad swirling dance.

Gražinytė-Tyla has been justly praised for the energy and passion that she brings to her conducting, but what impressed me most this evening was the serenity that she cultivated in all the quieter parts of the Brahms and Bartók, and even more so in the first piece of the concert, a haunting account of Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela. She gave the orchestra and audience plenty of time to settle down so that the opening cello solo glided in out of absolute silence, before handing over to Rachael Pankhurst’s enchanting cor anglais solo. The swan guards the land of the dead, and Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO were very effective in bringing out the way Sibelius uses shimmering violins against dark lower strings and the resonant low notes of two harps to create a mysterious landscape that hovers on the brink between life and death. As the final notes of the lower strings slid back into silence, it took me quite some time to shake off the dreamy, fairytale world and return to normal. If this had been the last piece in the concert, I might still be gazing at the mythical swan now.

***11