CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews
CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall Birmingham
CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall Birmingham
Head and heart triumph together in Mahler, Haydn and a UK premiere
Is there anything on a concert programme more guaranteed to make the heart lift – or to prove that a conductor has their musical priorities straight – than a Haydn symphony? If you're tired of Haydn, you're tired of life: there’s no music more joyous, more inventive or more resistant to vanity. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla chose his Symphony No 6 of 1761, called Le Matin for its opening sunrise and the freshness of its ideas, and it was a delight.
The six wind players stood up to play, and the CBSO strings were slimmed down a little, but not a lot. There was no serious attempt here to fake a period style; indeed, Gražinytė-Tyla seemed to be enjoying the forces at her disposal, revelling in her ability to unleash a big, full-bodied burst of string sound in a tutti, and encouraging her woodwinds and string principals to play out like soloists in a concerto grosso. Tempos were brisk but not frantic, and Haydn’s dynamic surprises and wonderfully varied colours – flute melodies, carolling horns, and the wood-smokey blend of cellos, basses and a warbling solo bassoon in the third movement’s central Trio section – made their mark with the lightest of touches. It was bright, it was playful, and above all it felt affectionate. Gražinytė-Tyla, having made her artistic choices, owned them with warmth and style: a point beautifully made. For every hundred conductors who can bring the house down with Mahler, only a handful can make Haydn sing like this.
She sees the whole symphony as a single cumulative sweep
Of course, Gražinytė-Tyla can do Mahler too. The second half of this concert comprised his First Symphony, though this won’t have been the only reason why Symphony Hall was packed (there weren’t even any empty seats in the choirstalls). This was Gražinytė-Tyla’s first concert as music director of the CBSO since her debut programme at this summer's BBC Proms; her first week-night programme in the orchestra’s main season, then, and Birmingham’s first taste of what – hopefully – will be business as usual for the next few years.
So if she planned it as a statement of artistic intent, it was an encouraging one, and not just because of the Haydn. Her predecessor Andris Nelsons often gave the impression that he was conducting contemporary music under duress. Gražinytė-Tyla, in contrast, opened with the UK premiere of Fires, a 10-minute squib (when did it become unacceptable to call an overture an overture?) by the Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnyte (pictured below). A misterioso introduction erupts in thunderous, racing ostinati, while excited clarinet squawks and bluesy sighs from muted trombone hint at a slyly subversive creative personality that might well be worth investigating further. Gražinytė-Tyla charged it with a bristling, glinting energy, and the final punchline – a quote from Beethoven’s Fifth – drew laughter.
As for the Mahler: if you thought there was nothing left for anyone to say about this most overplayed of warhorses, the huge scope and sheer control of Gražinytė-Tyla’s interpretation will have shaken up quite a few preconceptions. The first movement doesn’t have to resemble an introduction and sonata-allegro, of course, but I’ve never heard it played quite so persuasively as a single enormous prelude. Gražinytė-Tyla let the massive stillness of the opening bars overflow and seep into every part of the movement; only with the jubilant horn whoops at the climax of the recapitulation did all that pent-up longing finally run off the leash – ecstatically. And then onwards, sustaining that momentum: into an earthy scherzo that turned into a whirling, horn-driven vortex, and then that macabre fairy-tale funeral of a slow movement, with the opening bass solo played in a hushed unison by all eight CBSO basses.
In terms of Gražinytė-Tyla’s overall vision, that made perfect sense. It was clear by now that she sees the whole symphony as a single cumulative sweep. A sudden lurch to a solo instrument, at this point in the proceedings, would have undercut the depth of tone in which that vision was grounded. (It would be fascinating to hear her in Bruckner). Meanwhile the drama of her finale made good on everything that had been held back so far. Put like that, it sounds coolly logical; in fact, there’s an incredibly vivid and tactile quality to the sound Gražinytė-Tyla draws from her new orchestra. Pianissimo passages were taut and tremulous with contained rapture, and the strings surged over the peak of Mahler’s great central melody in an ardent, blazing swell of emotion. Mahler for the head or for the heart? Gražinytė-Tyla makes no distinction.
- The performance was broadcast on 16 November by BBC Radio 3 and is available for a month on the BBC iPlayer.
- Read more classical reviews on theartsdesk
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