What a pleasant antidote to football, politics, floods and other more or less pressing issues –to spend an afternoon in the company of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a packed Symphony Hall. They were directed by Kazuki Yamada, who somehow combined Japanese deference with full command of the players. Calm and collected, he reserved his more energetic movements and gestures for when they were really needed and the orchestra responded with evident warmth and affection for their guest conductor.

Kazuki Yamada © Marco Borggreve
Kazuki Yamada
© Marco Borggreve
It was a programme of familiar composers but plenty of contrasting emotions, launched in thrilling style with Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Op. 84. Written for a play by Goethe featuring tyranny, war, heroism and poisoning, the music itself isn't short of drama. From the first few stately, poised phrases we were plunged into a highly charged scenario, emphasised by dynamic variations. There was a lovely balance, a sense of dialogue between strings and woodwind. The tempo mounted, strongly accented, conveying a sense of urgency, then abruptly halted in a dramatic pause, to be then taken up again in a fast and furious hurtle towards the conclusion, highlighted by confident fanfare-like brass.

In his list of works, Elgar wrote "Finis R.I.P." against his Cello Concerto, as though in some form of farewell. One of his last major pieces, it reflects disillusionment and mournfulness in view of the destruction brought about by the First World War, and nostalgia for a lost world. For a composer finding solace in the beauty of music, it's clearly a very personal work, full of heartfelt emotion. The texture and contrasting moods throughout the concerto suggest a sense of turmoil, with poignant melancholy being the unifying thread.

Pieter Wispelwey's interpretation seemed relatively laid-back in relation to these underlying intense feelings but it was a pleasure to listen to, as well as to see him interacting with the orchestra. There was good rapport and a strong sense of dialogue and empathy, with soloist frequently smiling at the leader and conductor, and dance-like head movements while listening to orchestral passages. The warmth and depth of tone he conjured from his instrument were a delight, whether in the strong, resonant chords that frame the whole piece or in phrases that demanded a lightness of touch.

The middle section of the first movement has the solo instrument singing above full strings with a heart-tugging lyrical swaying that brought to mind an undulating climb in the Malvern Hills. The second scherzo movement was dramatic and captivating, Wispelwey demonstrating virtuosic speed, followed by lovely arcing phrases and careful placing of notes in the plaintive Adagio. The finale gave scope for flashes and flourishes of drama from the whole orchestra, with an almost combative feel between them and the soloist, before once again altering pace, the mournful closing chords handled with finesse and eliciting an enthusiastic audience response.

The second half gave us the sunny side of Sibelius, with his Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op.43. It has something of a southern feeling, an atmosphere of warmth, since it was inspired and partly written during a visit to Italy. The lilting melody in the first movement on poised, singing violins transitions to attention-grabbing pizzicato then luxuriates once more in legato playing. Interjections from woodwind, as it were passing the baton between sections, provided a fine example of the visual building of texture, once again underlining the value of witnessing live music. A Don Juan-inspired theme in the second movement introduced a sense of menace, with pizzicato lower strings and skilfully handled timpani in the background, almost imperceptible at first then growing.

The third movement's multiple moods elicited nuggets of tempo change and well handled pauses. The triumphant ending, by contrast, was a master class in sustained speed - an astonishing feat of sheer physicality on the part of the strings. It made one's arms ache just to watch them!