For the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's journey from the Danube to the Rhine, "one of the most fascinating musical minds of our era" (Le Figaro) took his place on the podium. Floating rather than walking, Kazushi Ono swept into the hall and injected this floating quality in the opening movement of Schubert's Symphony no. 5 in B flat major. The smaller orchestration made for an amazingly transparent soundscape, nicely articulated particularly by the first violins. This transparency and the musicians' eager compliance with each and every of Ono's small gestures created flowing and flexible dynamic, but also revealed occasional instances where the second violins appeared to minimally lag behind the first. This, however, was quickly forgotten after the first few notes of the elegiac Andante.

Kazushi Ono © Stofleth
Kazushi Ono
© Stofleth

The oboe mixed into the string sound very slightly, enough to perceive a presence, but not enough to be dominant – just like something you can see out of the corner of your eye; you know it is there, even though you may not recognise what it is – and added a velvety texture to the overall sound. With graceful, contained movements, Ono led the orchestra to the final chord that, despite the symphony's prominent Mozartian traits, strongly reminded of the "magic chords" of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, weightless, filigree, as if from another world.

Mozart's Flute Concerto no. 2 in D major in his typical playful, mellow style had a more down to earth-quality with its warm, compact sound and a still smaller orchestra, designed to make the soloist the main focus – ideally. It didn't always work out in this instance, and despite her pleasantly brisk articulation, the lower notes of soloist Marie-Christine Zupancic's first virtuoso passages were lost in the orchestra and may have lead to the odd over-attacked note.

Mozart provided the opportunity for a cadenza in each movement, and I was particularly looking forward to these as the soloist who, having grown up in the Lower Rhine area, further added to the evening's theme, had captured me with her characteristic, silver tone whenever I'd heard the CBSO previously. While I missed her trademark tone, her cadenzas offered exciting pianos in which every note was a self-contained entity, a thin ray of light that grew broader as she played. The first cadenza appeared as a more modern-sounding addition, the second movement cadenza however was of the same confiding nature as preceding solo parts, felt less disjointed and much more an organic part of the movement. The high-spirited, bubbly final movement displayed the same transparent quality as the opening Schubert, with gleaming brass lines over which the first violins cast their notes like a sugar dusting. The third movement cadenza, recapitulating material of the rondo, fitted seamlessly into the movement, giving it a great sense of overall balance.

Leaving the Danube, Schumann's Third Symphony was then to give us "a slice of Rhenish life", as he called it. Although the composer might have preferred positions in Leipzig or Dresden, he was not at all unhappy when he arrived in Düsseldorf for this new post as musical director. On the contrary, he found the area positively stimulating, and his cheerfulness is strongly reflected in the symphony's opening movement. Despite slight timing issues, the music flowed pleasantly; the horn signal positively glowed and lent its energetic radiance to the second movement, only dimmed by somewhat uncoordinated string interjections in the wind passage.

The fourth movement's first bar immediately captured the listener with its demanding presence and matt golden winds, but only in the final movement did the orchestra open up completely to display its range of brilliance. Ono finally set aside his elegant reserve and was swept away by the movement's irresistible drive towards conclusion: he had taken an overall more gentle approach to the three works with the orchestra following his every move, not reaching their full potential in terms of colours, but nonetheless producing a lean, elegant sound that worked particularly well for the Mozart. However, conductor and orchestra finally, if briefly, let their hair down. With strong, almost aggressive gestures Ono demanded the orchestra's full force for the final chords, but these gestures would not have been necessary – the musicians were playing with their utmost expressivity and energy, giving those last chords all they had for an appropriately exciting close of a most enjoyable performance.