In concert – Alexandre Kantorow, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.2 & Holst The Planets

Alexandre Kantorow (piano), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.2 in G major Op. 44 (1879-80)
Holst The Planets Op. 32 (1914-17)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 February 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

He may not take up his role as Chief Conductor for a couple of months, but Kazuki Yamada already has acute rapport with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as was evident tonight in this unlikely though effective coupling of major works by Tchaikovsky and Holst.

While it has never aspired to the popularity of its predecessor, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto lacks none of the melodic appeal or emotional heft synonymous with this composer. Growing conviction that piano and orchestra were best heard separately rather than together can give the first movement a rather stop-start trajectory, but with Alexandre Kantorow (below) alive to its bravura and poetic facets there was never a sense of disjointedness in a first movement – emphasis on whose ‘brillante’ and ‘vivace’ markings avoided any risk of portentousness.

Although those aspects of the edition by Alexander Ziloti that simplify the solo writing have now been consigned to history, truncation of the Andante into an intermezzo akin to that of the First Concerto remains common. To do so, however, misses out on the expansiveness of this movement – notably its eventful trialogue between piano, violin and cello as dominates the latter stages, and which here saw a sustained interaction between Kantorow and the CBSO section leaders (Eugene Tzikindelean and an as yet unidentified cellist. Yamada directed with an unobtrusive rightness, then gave the soloist his head in a finale that makes up for its relative brevity with scintillating wit and agility – not least in the coda when, having resisted any temptation for a grand apotheosis, Tchaikovsky allows soloist and orchestra an effervescent race to the close.

Tchaikovsky was never an influence on Holst, and the conventional scoring of the former’s piece is worlds away from that of The Planets with its extended range of ingenious timbres and textures. Finding the right martial pulse at the outset of Mars, Yamada built this first piece to a pulverizing climax – after which, the enfolding raptness of Venus was the more tangible in its serenity and poise. The deftness and insouciance of Mercury was no less to the fore, and the only reservations came in a Jupiter whose bracing outer sections verged  on the dogged; with a central section whose indelible melody took on a ceremonial turgidity which has nothing to do with this music as Holst conceived it. Happily, the remaining three pieces, which all too often seem anticlimactic, emerged as highlights of this performance.

Undeniably the emotional focal-point, Saturn unfolded from initial remoteness to a climax whose sense of crisis was palpably evident, before withdrawing into a radiant evanescence. Contrast with the sardonic humour of Uranus was pronounced – Yamada making the most of its flights of fancy, then lurchingly triumphant parade, before the heart-stopping dissolve near its close. Neptune capped proceedings superbly – its strangeness and insubstantiality allied to searching introspection which afforded cohesion to this venture into the unknown.

Placed high to the left of the auditorium, the CBSO Youth Chorus added its ethereal tones. The final fadeout began almost too remotely to be sustained yet, as this repeating vocalise moved beyond earshot, there was no doubt as to the totality of what had been experienced.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Kazuki Yamada and Alexandre Kantorow – and for more on Gustav Holst, head to The Holst Society