An early evening concert, short but sweet, found the charismatic Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, in fine form, and an orchestra who were evidently eager to perform, even to an empty hall. Hopefully, the return to that world of full houses, huge orchestras and choirs is now not too far away.

The CBSO brass in Symphony Hall

In the meantime, what more delightful way to open a concert than with John Ireland’s A Downland Suite. Written as a brass band concert piece in 1932, it has seen several arrangements, but the brass version is the most apposite. The opening Prelude is in a pleasingly straightforward sonata form, compact without a note out of place. The Elegy is similarly concise, graced by a very church-like brass band. The Minuet is the real charmer, with a beautiful gentle neoclassical tune. The Rondo finale stretches the technique of the players and has a lot more grit than anything that has gone before. All was played in exemplary competition winning fashion by the CBSO brass.

Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, written in 1939 to a commission from Paul Sacher, was performed here without a conductor, but directed by the first violinist Eugene Tzkindelean. The double-sized string section gave it less of a chamber music texture than normal and made the climaxes more telling and intense. Written shortly before the composer was forced, reluctantly, to leave Europe, in a beautiful Swiss mountain villa provided by Sacher, it has moments of happiness and even lightness. However, real angst is never that far under the surface. These mood swings were emphasised in this performance to good effect, with all the precision of technique and dynamics demanded by the composer. 

Eugene Tzikindelean

The opening Allegro non troppo has a particularly ambivalent tone and an unusual form, but this was clearly set before us in this performance. The Molto adagio is unequivocal in its seriousness, however. This is uncompromising music of great mysterious solemnity, which builds to an overwhelming climax at its centre, particular effective here with the large band. The Allegro assai has much in common with many of the composer’s finale’s, with folk dance rhythms and modal harmonies dominating. The final rush to the brilliant close was exciting and refreshing here. Everything about the performance sounded authentic and committed, convincing me that this is not one of the composer’s minor creation, but a work of substance depth of feeling.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

It’s always good to hear the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams performed under non-British conductors. The fact that this is happening more and more is evidence of the universality and greatness of the work. Gražinytė-Tyla’s approach to the score was all about clarity of textures and steadiness of a relatively brisk tempo. She didn’t make it sound like a late Romantic work at all, as others have done, but lean and crisp, very much a product of the 20th century, in the same orbit as Bartók. The Symphony Hall also helped the spacial effects in the score, which was composed to be performed in Gloucester Cathedral, with no audience to clog up the clarity. The main climax was prepared in an unaffected way, with no overemphasis of the score's lushness to distract from the purity of Gražinytė-Tyla conception of the piece. A splendid performance by all concerned of an undoubted masterpiece.

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