There was the audible sense of an orchestra waking up in this City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert. A little stiff at first, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 1 only became more comfortable – and the players more bright and enthused – once Kazuki Yamada cranked up the pace. Nonetheless, the more restrained passages continued to sound flat, the overture’s shifting ideas coming across as indecision, lacking inner energy.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason

At first it seemed that Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto would go the same way, with the opening Allegretto taken at a surprisingly moderate tempo that too often seemed to plod along, while the principal horn repeatedly fluffed solos, continuing a trend that has plagued too many CBSO concerts of recent times. Yet everything was transformed in the simply gorgeous slow movement, Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s cello an introverted song enmeshed in the flowing strings around him. His superb intonation and poignant delicacy found their opposite in the orchestral responses, which Yamada made not merely loud but positively incandescent, lingering slightly over the climaxes, conveying elegance and pain in equal measure, before turning wraithlike at the conclusion.

It bode well for the cadenza, which Kanneh-Mason initially performed as if he were trying to hide in the depths of his instrument. The development from dark introspection to fast assertion was as fluid as it was remarkable, culminating in a frantic frenzy. Just how frantic was vividly demonstrated immediately after when, at his first entry in the Finale, his top string broke. It’s to everyone’s, but especially Kanneh-Mason’s, credit that, after a short pause, the final movement managed to not only to recapture the flow but propel it on to jovial, even frivolous merriment.

There were times during the CBSO’s performance of Walton’s First Symphony when it was tempting to imagine it as a torso akin to Bruckner’s Ninth. Walton famously struggled to complete the work, and the way Yamada shaped the first three movements brought to mind the trajectory of the Bruckner. Lithe, sprightly momentum dominated the opening Allegro assai, exercised and energised, its lyrical passages and brief reposes never allowed to disrupt the rhythmic impulse. Yamada seemed equally drawn to the playfulness and the mess in the music, producing a wonderfully dramatic rendition of Walton’s gleefully scrunchy chords, making them so wilfully dissonant that it became a real ‘WTF?!’ moment.

Kazuki Yamada conducts the CBSO

While the sarcastic savagery in the Scherzo could have done with a lot more bite, this was due to Yamada’s continuing focus on positivity, turning it into a brief essay in extreme joy. As such, the shift in tone for the slow movement felt more than usually immense, abruptly plaintive and searching, with special credit due to the woodwinds as its primary mouthpiece. Strange half echoes of the first movement momentum acted as turbulence through the texture, the CBSO matching the growing ardency with a desperate sense of imploring. Following what sounded like a knife wound from the brass, the final sag back into darkness filled Symphony Hall with a terrible sense of loss and despair.

Like Bruckner, Walton’s First could have ended there, and would have been a powerful testament to an epic rise and fall. Yet somehow, Walton found a way to move beyond the tragedy. Yamada and the CBSO acknowledged that struggle by making the opening of the Finale like the start of an entirely new symphony. It had the brightness of a sunrise, the ensuing fugue rendered crisp and ebullient, woven beautifully into the rich lyricism that followed. Here was music unable to do anything but dance, sing and shout its infinite happiness to the entire world.