At the end of this season Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is stepping down as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Although her appearances this week were by no means a farewell – she and the orchestra are about to tour central Europe together, and next season she will spend four weeks with them as chief guest conductor – they were her last in Symphony Hall in the position she has held since 2016. Though that association has produced many fine things, it has perhaps not been quite the success that was expected when Gražinytė-Tyla was appointed, and there’s a sense that the Birmingham audience has not had the chance to appreciate the full extent of her capabilities.
One of many composers that she has explored little with the CBSO is Bruckner, and to judge from her performance of the Sixth Symphony in this concert, that is a real disappointment. If the Sixth – compact, lively, direct – is the work that might persuade even Bruckner agnostics of the virtues of his music, then this performance should certainly have been the one to hear. There was nothing remotely portentous or overbearing about Gražinytė-Tyla’s approach: played with great assurance and richness of tone by the CBSO, everything moved with an ease and lightness, downplaying the fierceness of the confrontations of the first movement, making the great funeral-march Adagio less solemn, more consoling than usual, and even giving the finale a coherence it can sometimes lack.
This programme was one that had been scheduled for March 2020, and, as then, the Bruckner was preceded by Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Gabriela Montero as the soloist. If her approach to such a familiar work could never be described as subtly nuanced, it was undoubtedly dynamic and arresting, and after it Montero offered an improvisation on a theme from Ennio Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso score, as suggested by a member of the audience. The result was rather like a Busoni transcription of Bach, but just right as an encore.