With repertoire stretching from Rameau to Bollywood, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are nothing if not versatile. But neither is their regular guest conductor, Mark Minkowski. With period or modern instruments, with baton or bare hands, Minkowski's gift is to make music instantaneous. Clearly he rehearses every nuance - if he didn't, he simply wouldn't get away with some of the break-neck speeds he favours - yet the feeling is of improvisation on a grand scale: a giddy awareness of the infinite arithmetic of phrases, bars, beats and sub-divisions. There are, he suggests, a thousand ways to make each moment happen.
A comprehensive lexicon of Minkowski's aerobic gestures could run to several pages. There's the personal stereo jiggle: a hips, knees, shoulders and elbows boogie that bubbles along to a constant current of semi-quavers. Then there's the Maori squat, which involves leaving the podium to make eye-to-eye contact with the cellos. There's the 180-degree swoop that starts from the timpani and extends to the back of the circle, the side-of-beef swing to the first violins, the yo-yo, the column, and the star-jump. When he holds back, when the dynamics so low as to be barely playable and the metre is tick-tick-ticking away to the next forte, the suspense is almost unbearable. This is great theatre, and if great theatre is not quite the thing for the reflective monograph of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto - where, in any case, the positioning of soloist Nikolai Lugansky's instrument forced the orchestra into acoustic anonymity - the intricate variations of Schubert's Ninth Symphony were impeccably realised.
Conducting this work from memory might be ostentatious but Minkowski's translation of its origami-like structure is breathtakingly confident and imaginative. From the first sensuous horn entry, through the sprung, Italianate quality of the woodwind refrain, the brisk andante con moto (with due emphasis on con moto), its mournful cello theme, the sour-sweet trio of the scherzo and the formidable pulse of the finale, this was a remarkable performance. Colour, tempi and tone glittered and dazzled. That this was the same orchestra whose Sibelius (under music director Sakari Oramo) is so smooth and expansive, and whose Beethoven 9 (again under Oramo) was so airless, is barely credible. An improbable, inspired, intoxicating match.
The year after leaving college is a difficult one for young soloists. First there are the endless auditions and competitions, then the vexing business of choosing a debut recital programme. How can you show an emerging musical personality to best effect? The answer, as shown by violinist Ruth Palmer's initially unsteady but finally electrifying Wigmore Hall debut, is to be daring.
If, as I argued a few weeks ago, the time to leave a concert is when you've heard something astonishing, it follows that there are times when you have to wait for that moment. Had I left halfway through Palmer's recital, my impression would have been of an elegant, self-effacing violinist with a surprisingly weighty, robust tone that she was perhaps a little embarrassed by, in much the same way as young singers can seem overwhelmed by vocal growth-spurts. Elgar's Op 82 Sonata showed an admirable ability to think long - one mirrored by Katya Apekisheva's sensitive piano accompaniment - and a natural facility for intelligent introspection. In Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano the quality again was of an almost careless beauty. But in neither piece did Palmer wholly engage with that big, bright sound of hers.
Whether it was a question of finding the right repertoire or simply getting rid of her music stand, the young woman who took the stage for Vytautas Barkausas's Partita for Solo Violin was utterly transformed. Brilliant, bold and absorbed, Palmer played with glamour, engagement and entitlement; commanding her physical and musical space, unfolding Barkausas's dazzling sequence with absolute tonal connection, rock-solid spiccato, taut pizzicato, muscular double-stopping, and a sure sense of drama. Strident, shocking, imperious and beautiful, this was a riveting performance and one that Palmer and Apekisheva built on in their visceral account of Schnittke's Sonata No 2 "Quasi una sonata": an account of tremendous control and impact that flung Schnittke's harmonies across the hall like cans of paint on a vast canvas. Palmer may look demure, but her musical heart is not. And if she can import that daring and dynamism into her Elgar and Debussy, she'll be back at the Wigmore in no time at all.Reuse content