CBSO with Gabriela Montero: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 & Bruckner Symphony No.6, Symphony Hall Birmingham – 11 May 2022, 4**** Reviewers David and Paul Gray

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1

Anton Bruckner – Symphony No. 6

The CBSO brought its season to a close in grand style, with performances of one of the most iconic piano concertos in the repertoire and a monumental Bruckner symphony, in a concert which marked the last performance of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as its principal conductor in its magnificent home venue, Birmingham Symphony Hall.

The concert was dedicated to Ukraine.  This was appropriate, given the strong links between the opening concerto and that country: Tchaikovsky visited Kyiv while composing the work and quotes two Ukrainian folksongs.  Soloist Gabriela Montero effortlessly negotiated the concerto’s notorious technical demands, giving a performance which resisted the temptation of showy flamboyance and instead focused on expression, elegance and precision.  The opening movement can be structurally problematic.  Gražinytė-Tyla gave a clearly mapped reading which made perfect sense of it.  Montero played with beautiful fluidity and a sense of freedom in the slow movement and exhilarated in the finale.

Her well-deserved encore, an improvisation in the style of Bach based on Morricone’s theme from Cinema Paradiso; a suggestion from the audience, displayed all of the intelligence and musicality that made her performance of the preceding work so memorable.

It was good to have Symphony Hall set up to provide a suitably cavernous acoustic for the Bruckner, with most of the doors to the sounding chambers open and retracted upper-level walls.  Bruckner’s symphonies explore a huge dynamic range and need space to grow.  Disappointingly there were times when the performance failed to make the most of this.  Passages where the layering of orchestral sound builds through huge crescendos were started too loudly, meaning that the fortissimos were reached too soon and had nowhere to go.  The feeling of continuous growth and development was therefore somewhat lost.  There were also times when pauses where rushed, not allowing time for the hall to do its reverberant work.

The first movement reading was rather blocky;  structure is important in Bruckner’s music, but we’re not sure his building blocks needed to be exposed so pointedly.  In contrast, the funereal second movement, after a delicate chamber-music like opening which allowed the woodwind to shine, flowed with an expansive, breathing quality.  There was some gorgeous, filigree-light playing from the strings, and the woodwind were as exceptional as ever.

Now, synonymous with Bruckner’s symphonies, is the central, important and vital role given to the horn, particularly the solo horn. In this performance the playing of the whole horn section was largely excellent. However, the very many passages and essential motifs for a solo horn were dogged with excessive fluffing, poor tone and many mistakes, and its role in the Scherzo verged on embarrassing. And this is not a new phenomenon. Elsewhere, the brass played with impressive muscularity, raising the roof in the symphony’s epic climax.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Piano – Gabriela Montero

Conductor – Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla


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