The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's appointment of Principal Guest Conductor Kazuki Yamada at the start of the year has to be regarded a blessing. Tonight’s programme (the first of three this season) encompassed performances of the kind of ingenuity and artistry that makes one wish the concert would never end. The 39-year-old Yamada, together with Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, gave us a series of works that in every respect was candid and euphoric.

Kazuki Yamada © Marco Borggreve
Kazuki Yamada
© Marco Borggreve

The conductor’s enamoured interpretation of Ravel’s La Valse was a sublime illustration of his love of French music. But what he teased from the CBSO was a sound quite different from the usual dusty French-ness produced by a less canny interpreter. Tonight’s expert deliberations by both conductor and orchestra revealed the poetic beauty and ‘wonderful rhythms’ of the work.

Following La Valse was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s little-known Violin Concerto in D major. The Austrian’s compositional flair in his early years was likened to that of Mozart and earned him something of a celebrity status, buoyed by the adorations and compliments of contemporaries such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In the shadow of war, the young composer left Europe in 1934 and headed for Hollywood where he spent a decade or so writing film music.

Thus a treat it was to hear something so rare, but rarer still to hear the sort of flawless sound which tonight rolled lushly from beneath the fingers of Baiba Skride. For here was a player at the top of her game, ‘in the zone’ and clearly enjoying the colour and magnificence of Korngold’s unapologetic melodies. Skride knows this piece inside and out and delivered a stimulating interpretation as if to say: "Listen and learn. Here is a composer capable of drawing from the listener every emotion imaginable."

Skride’s attention to detail and her musical expression prevented the piece from sounding as though it had been extracted from one of the composer’s film scores (although technically it had). Her attacks in high and virtuosic passages were ballsy and her energy never held in abeyance (as if it could ever be). As a consequence the sounds she produced were crystalline and unapologetic, both of which the composer would no doubt have approved.

The second half began with Ravel’s Valses nobles at sentimentales delivered sensitively by a CBSO finely tuned to Yamada's expressive direction. Ravel’s tribute to the more dissolute flank of the waltz was here taken by conductor and orchestra and moulded into a fresh, new work that could easily have been written this side of the war. It might once have been a poorly-received work for solo piano but its makeover at the hands of Yamada was nothing short of striking.

Indeed, this was a superbly alert rendition of Valses nobles at sentimentales: a work wrought from the heady milieu of French impressionism. Yamada’s skill of modelling phrase and tempo were put to good use and he brought the emotive dialogue to the fore superbly well. In doing so, he revealed not only Ravel’s adoration of a world of harmless Straussian luxuries but also the new universe of light and colour in which the Frenchman now found himself.

Of the final work of the evening a written description will not suffice. Rarely have I been more entertained at a classical concert than this by rendition of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. An augmented CBSO, complete with all manner of percussive instrument, delivered something that altogether rose above the basal definition of ‘music’.

Special mention must be made of the percussion section whose relentless hammerings constituted the strong, jagged backbone of the magnificent beast. Complex tempi were delivered with accuracy – a breathtaking example of how best to deliver beat and rhythm and, for the young students of the audience who may baulk at the idea of just ‘beating drums’, here was an insight into the beauty and sexiness of rhythm.

Yamada is no despot by any means. He is part of the Big Picture, the final ingredient in the chemical reaction that turns concerts into celebrations. His connection with the orchestra was apparent, and his rapport with each section and each player was as plain as day. By his own admission he feels a connection with the CBSO that is almost “telepathic”; that much was obvious at tonight’s concert.

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