CBSO/Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the Barbican review: the conductor brought a bright, edgy, in-your-face sound

 (Benjamin Ealovega)
(Benjamin Ealovega)

Long before Cate Blanchett wowed us with her highly physicalised podium technique in Tar, the Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was doing the same in real life with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

She stepped down as principal conductor last year, but continues to appear with them as principal guest conductor. Publicity photos of her depict a whirlwind of activity and indeed her high-octane gestural style is the hallmark of her conducting.

In sheer sonic terms, the difference between the CBSO sound under her and that produced these days by Barbican residents the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle is striking.

From the opening notes of this concert, we were confronted with a bright, edgy, in-your-face sound not heard in this venue for many a year. We have become used to Rattle’s exquisitely blended, more nuanced textures. Gražinytė-Tyla hit us with a bracing Baltic blast of salty fresh air, ideal for Prokofiev.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (Benjamin Ealovega)
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (Benjamin Ealovega)

The suite of pieces from the latter’s Romeo and Juliet ballet corresponded to none of the three devised by the composer: rather a sequence following a logical narrative thread from the depiction of the warring clans and Juliet as a young girl, through the love scene to the death of Juliet.

Gražinytė-Tyla ’s whiplash rhythms served well in Montagues and Capulets and especially the Death of Tybalt. In the latter the rat-a-tat of a battery of side-drums, the menacing sizzle of cymbals and the lethal blows were all delivered forcefully. But also arresting were the opening shivers of the wind whistling through the catacombs and the closing Death of Juliet, its sounds tapering to silence.

More questionable was whether such a thrusting, racy style is suitable for Elgar. The latter’s violin concerto undoubtedly exhibits an element of Edwardian swagger, but it’s counterposed by that wistful, introspective quality that runs so much deeper.

Under Gražinytė-Tyla’s brisk, snappy baton the orchestral introduction conveyed little sense of that inner yearning. The accomplished Norwegian soloist Vilde Frang took command with her poignantly thoughtful entry and played with consistent expressivity throughout.

The eloquently pensive cadenza to the final movement, the soloist’s evocative arabesques accompanied by the gentle thrumming of orchestral strings, at last found soloist and conductor in perfect harmony.