Thrilling Foretaste of the CBSO’s new Chief Conductor and Artistic Director to be – Kazuki Yamada

CBSO – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Thursday January 20th 2022
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Reviewer: Paul Gray

Strauss -Don Juan
Mozart – Vado ma dove?
Mozart – Non più di fiori

Mahler – Symphony No. 4

There is no doubt that in this superb concert by the CBSO all eyes – and ears – were on one of the most anticipated orchestral appointments of the year, the new Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the CBSO, Kazuki Yamada (Spring 2023). Since 2018, Yamada, then just 39, has been the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor and it is clear that he has established a remarkable musical bond with the players of the CBSO.

For this was a thrilling concert, culminating in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony,  that for this writer – a lifelong admirer, collector and student of Mahler’s symphonies and the myriad of historical performances – was one of the best performances, most novel interpretations and truly convincing musico-emotive “journeys” ever experienced.

Yamada’s overarching narrative vision for this symphony was new, fresh and invigorating, and there were some delightful surprises in store. Take, for example, the joyful little coda at the end of the second movement. Just before the coda, Yamada suddenly stops the orchestra in its tracks, giving a protracted silence way longer than Mahler might have intended, that had some in the audience peering into the pit  wondering if something had gone wrong,. Yamada then launched – very slowly, and from an infinite quietude – into a gradually accelerating and increasingly vociferous frenzy of a coda: thoroughly daring, exciting and original; a most wonderful repost to anyone who says “Mahler is all about death”. NO, this is a composer in full celebration of the joy of life and of living.

Maybe this is why, at one of the various Ländler dance moments in the symphony, our conductor dispensed with the baton and literally danced on the podium to conduct with his body rather than hand and stick! Maestro Yamada really is a man to watch. Indeed, the slow, third movement – a great anthem to the beauty and challenges of life – was conducted and performed with a profound sensitivity and understanding. Utterly magical.

And the surprises kept coming. This had the players on their toes. The woodwind of the CBSO are surely at the best they have ever been, with detailed, expressive and incisive playing. Strings and harp were also superlative. One was reminded of those heady, early days of Simon Rattle when everyone realised that someone and something very new and exciting was happening with the CBSO.

Pleasingly, Principal Horn, Elspeth Dutch, had clearly done a lot of work on the very many exposed, often solo, horn passages, and there were far fewer of the more customary fluffed entries & passage work. Long may this continue.

The rumbustious Strauss at the opening of the concert, and the two Mozart arias – exquisitely sung by Egyptian soprano Fatma Said (and with terrific clarinet obbligato from Oliver Janes in the second) – rather lacked attention to the aforementioned kind of orchestral pianissimo so effectively used in the Mahler.

For example, at the end of her aria Non più di fiori  Said gave an exquisite, almost whispered description of the sorrowful words il mio dolore, but conductor and orchestra sadly didn’t respond like-for-like.  The Strauss, too, although a terrific blast, perhaps lacked some of the subtleties of dynamic contrast.

But these are only very minor grumbles and, given the glorious & innovative reading of the Mahler – which is clearly where most rehearsal effort had gone – one can only look forward with excited anticipation to Maestro Yamada’s more permanent residency as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the CBSO in Spring 2023.

Conductor – Kazuki Yamada
Soprano Soloist – Fatma Said

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