This is not how the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra would have chosen to have celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first symphonic concert, conducted by Sir Edward Elgar on 10th November 1920. But in these difficult times, they and conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla were undeterred, marking the anniversary with a concert recorded in Symphony Hall. They included the centrepiece of that first all-Elgar concert, his Cello Concerto, with star of the moment Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist. For the remainder of the programme, they departed from that original Elgar-fest, instead opting for a toast to Beethoven’s 250th birthday. 

Sheku-Kanneh Mason, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO

The programme also included two movements from Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, depicting legends from the Kalevala. Technically, the stories here were out of sequence, with Lemminkäinen’s Return (from death) coming before The Swan of Tuonela, which Lemminkäinen was tasked with killing, only to be shot by a poisoned arrow. But no matter – in Sibelius’ Suite, the four stories don’t follow a straight narrative order either. And Lemminkäinen’s triumphant return provided a suitably energetic opening for the CBSO’s defiant celebration. With expectant energy, Gražinytė-Tyla drove the players in rippling runs and the spiky melody, with bright brass pointing the joyful build to its glorious conclusion.   

Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Kanneh-Mason is a performer who clearly inhabits the music emotionally, and he commanded attention with his emphatic purity of tone from the opening chords of the Elgar, maintaining that clarity of tone right to the top of the fingerboard. The pizzicato chords in the Scherzo had a resonant ring in the empty hall’s full acoustic, and Gražinytė-Tyla kept the orchestra on their toes as Kanneh-Mason skittered through with a deft touch. He made the slow movement’s elegy sing with deep poignancy, and there was great clarity in the string sound here too, never too soupy – perhaps an upside of the slightly reduced forces (due to social distancing requirements). The finale had drama, but also attention to detail throughout, with the cello part, woodwind interjections and violin countermelody perfectly balanced. There was no big slow-up for the off-kilter march, and no milking of the big movements, Kanneh-Mason wisely opting for allowing the quiet moments to speak the most emotionally.   

Rachael Pankhurst

Following the Elgar, we returned to the Kalevala for The Swan of Tuonela. We were now in the realm of the lower instruments, with a dark opening rumble and shimmering watery strings. The cor anglais (beautifully played with warmth and expression by Rachael Pankhurst) was the star here, with a particularly moving conversation with the cello to open and close the movement. Gražinytė-Tyla once again suppressed the dynamics, adding to the tension, and allowing the keening cor anglais to rise above the texture. Sibelius sub-divides the strings into thirteen parts – here the reduced string forces thinned these dense textures somewhat, but the dark atmosphere as the swan sailed off on the black waters was nonetheless captured well.

So now we needed some hope to take us out of those dark waters, and what better than Beethoven’s Leonore no. 3, the last of his rejected Fidelio overtures. After the descent into the prison in the introduction, Gražinytė-Tyla judged the slow emergence of a sense of vision perfectly, leading to a bouncy Allegro full of joyful expectation, allowing the energy to burst out. There was a little loss of dramatic momentum in the C minor section, but energy levels soon picked up again, and the arrival of the offstage trumpet (nicely superimposed on screen) raised spirits for the build to the final presto. Gražinytė-Tyla elicited razor sharp ensemble here in the rapid runs and syncopations, rising to a joyous conclusion.

This performance was reviewed from the CBSO's video stream (only available within the UK)