CBSO/Lahav Shani at Symphony Hall, Birmingham
If only all job interviews were this enjoyable. As the CBSO’s search for the successor to the supercharged Andris Nelsons continues, its audience has ringside seats for the action. The Lithuanian conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, 29, is the favourite. In this concert it was also youth on trial. Lahav Shani, 27, comes with the seal of approval from Daniel Barenboim (his mentor), a win at the 2013 Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition and a biography that already reads like a Wikipedia list of the world’s best orchestras. He’s conducted the CBSO a few times and here he showed his credentials in the varied challenges of Haydn, Szymanowski and Brahms with impressive but mixed results. His Oxford Symphony was a creature of grace and glossiness. With balletic arms and expressive hands, Shani cut an elegant figure and this translated into Haydn’s music. Tempos felt natural and beauty of sound was prized above all. Details were telling: there were pin-sharp string scales, a soulful bassoon and a joyful sotto voce opening for the bustling finale. All this was a world away from the heady swirl of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2 in which soloist Nicola Benedetti was in control. Rich orchestral textures coalesced around her sumptuous yet focused line and everyone followed her lead in the tangy second half. Dark spirits dance in the cathedral of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.
A spacious, grave first movement laid the foundations for a weighty, intense interpretation. Yet the sonic beauty that made the Haydn glow threatened to undermine matters: soaring upper strings are all very well but Brahms needs to be built from the bass line up. Would Shani yet be able to challenge the CBSO enough to merit the top post? I’m not sure, but he is clearly an important talent and a name to watch.