CBSO – Centenary of the First Concert at Town Hall

Lemminkäinen’s Return, Op.22/4

Cello Concerto in E-minor, Op.85

The Swan of Tuonela, Op.22/2

Overture Leonora No.3, Op.72b

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Recorded at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Tuesday 10th November
Broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 17th November at 7.30 p.m.

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 November, 2020
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Two months ago, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave a concert for the centenary of its first performance. Tonight, the orchestra marked the 100th anniversary of its first symphonic concert with a wide-ranging programme under current music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Sibelius has been a mainstay of the CBSO’s music-making ever since that inaugural season, making inclusion of his music especially apposite. Neither Simon Rattle nor Sakari Oramo performed the Four Legends during their respective tenures, though MG-T evidently has its measure. Admittedly her suave and stealthy take on ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ was not quite the headlong rush it usually is, but its wealth of detail and steadily accumulating momentum made for an absorbing traversal right through to the heroic summation of its closing cadence.

While Sibelius’s creative career was reaching its peak, Elgar’s was unwittingly drawing to its close. His Cello Concerto is permeated with that ‘end of an era’ fatalism and regret such as Sheku Kanneh-Mason brought out with typically understated conviction, whether in the musing uncertainty of its first movement or glancing irony of its Scherzo. Others may have secured greater fervency in the Adagio, but the soloist’s eloquent restraint was more than justified; as too his methodical building of tension over the Finale towards a climax of real emotional intensity, capped by the terse stoicism of its coda. With orchestra and conductor attentive in support, it was a notable interpretation ‘in the making’; preferable, indeed, in its greater spontaneity to Kanneh-Mason’s recording with Rattle and the LSO.

The highlight of this programme was as perceptive an account of ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ as this orchestra can have given. Less ubiquitous then it once was now that shorter pieces tend to be left out of programmes, this remains as masterly in its scene-setting (and remembering it began as prelude to an unrealised opera) as in its plangent follow-through, MG-T brought out both facets with luminous conviction. This is also a showcase for the cor anglais, Rachel Pankhurst following in the steps of some distinguished predecessors and not found wanting.

Even without an audience present, the logistics of mounting orchestral concerts given these present circumstances are considerable and this perhaps affected the final item more than any other. Not that Beethoven’s Third Leonora was a disappointment, but even in the portentous introduction a lack of intensity was evident, and this carried through the piece overall. The imposing formal dimensions were finely delineated, with salient details such as the offstage trumpet at the culmination of the development heard to ideal effect, though an underlying lack of energy made those more demonstrative sections sound curiously detached – as though the piece were being heard at an emotional remove. Not that the strings’ onrush into the coda felt at all downplayed, or the peroration that follows lacking in joyousness as it surges to its close.

Make no mistake, this was an impressive demonstration in toto of the CBSO’s musicianship at a time of adversity, and one can only hope the intended cessation of this lockdown allows the players to resume concerts as intended. Birmingham needs its orchestra back and soon!

Further information at

This concert can be heard online at

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