Review: CBSO at the Royal Concertgebouw

Simon Hale catches the CBSO on tour.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra struck all the right notes for the audience at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw at the start of its European tour.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, in her final weeks as the CBSO’s principal guest conductor, conducted works by Mieczysław Weinberg, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev in her hallmark high-octane style to help bring a well-deserved standing ovation from a packed house. The superb acoustics at this famous old concert hall, built in 1888, did more than justice to the nuanced programme of modern works that delivered passages ranging from the beautifully intimate to the strangely unsettling and, not least, the electrifyingly thrilling.

The orchestra gave a sparkling rendition of the Sinfonietta No 1 by Weinberg, the Polish-born Soviet composer whose music has been championed by Lithuanian-born Mirga, the orchestra bringing out especially the work’s lyricism and klezmer-sounding melody with charm and zest.

Tenderness and tension alternated in a CBSO-devised sequence of highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet score. Beginning with an infectious menacing rhythm to introduce the conflicting Montagues and Capulets, the mood changed with a fun-filled scherzo of yearning strings, flutes and sax to depict Juliet as a Young Girl.

In the Death of Tybalt, when the big titular romance starts to all go wrong, the CBSO brilliantly heightened the dramatic effect of a sword fight with racing strings and shrieking brass and finally the loud beating of a drum, the energy from which you could feel rising from the auditorium floor.

After performing with the orchestra at the Brucknerhaus Linz on the CBSO’s 2022 European tour, the Austrian cellist Julia Hagen (pictured) returned as soloist in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 2. In a work full of irony and ambiguity, composed in 1966, Julia played the solo instrumental voice in its near-constant dialogue with the orchestra with precision, humour and warmth.

In echoes of Mahler’s First Symphony, trumpet fanfares sounded as if they were driving the music to a thunderous climax but – in a parody of the Mahler – we were not given that emotional release. As in the Weinberg, you could hear a vibrant Yiddish melody breaking through. In contrast, the ending faded out with an enigmatic tick-tock in the percussion – which led to a lengthy thought-filled silence before the evening’s first standing ovation, the second concluding the evening.

Booking a date at the Concertgebouw is highly recommended for any music lover planning a minibreak in Amsterdam. Tickets at all prices come with pre-concert and interval drinks.

The CBSO continues its European tour with concerts at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg on March 28th, the Isarphilharmonie in Munich on March 29th, and the Wiener Konzerthaus in Vienna on March 30th. The orchestra returns to Symphony Hall on April 13th with a performance of works by Brahms and Rachmaninov, including Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. For bookings, click on or call the B:Music Box Office on 0121 780 3333.