Review: Kazuki conducts Rachmaninoff

Simon Hale watches the CBSO and its charismatic conductor at Symphony Hall.

The CBSO’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Rachmaninoff continued in rapturous style at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with an exuberant performance of his popular Second Symphony.

Conductor Kazuki Yamada, charismatic and effusive at the podium, seemed to have the symphony’s romantic appeal at heart as he coaxed the orchestra to bring out all the work’s emotional power. That current of emotion in what was the Russian composer’s unambiguously personal outpouring swept through all four movements, leaving the packed house transfixed with excitement.

Premiered in 1908, eleven years after the disastrous reception to his First Symphony, the stream of lushly played melodies in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony seemed endless, introduced or otherwise accompanied by superb solo clarinet, woodwind and violin playing. The return of a tune first heard in the slow introduction and then the gorgeous adagio in the triumphant finale was played with such gusto that it remained irresistibly hummable long afterwards.

Matching that orchestral brilliance was an extraordinary CBSO debut by Seong-Jin Cho (pictured) as the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The young South Korean provided a wonderfully lucid and inspiring rendition of this demanding romantic work in perfect collaboration with the orchestra. A star in the making, Cho finally gave in to incessant applause by performing beautifully what sounded like a Bach arrangement (sadly the audience was not told the name) as an encore.

The evening’s opener was Gustav Holst’s Japanese Suite. According to the programme notes, in 1915 Holst was commissioned to arrange something Japanese for a visiting dancer, Michio Ito, who happily obliged by whistling all but one of the tunes for the composer to orchestrate. The result did not sound particularly Japanese or dance-like but at only ten minutes in length the piece was a pleasant enough foretaste of the delights to come.

The CBSO ends its current season on Wednesday June 14th at Symphony Hall with a performance of Edward Elgar’s First Symphony, Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and the world premiere of a CBSO Centenary Commision by Dani Howard.

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