A couple of months ago the CBSO rounded off its 2015-16 subscription season with a dazzling staged performance of Verdi's Falstaff. Last Thursday it launched 2016-17 with a stunning programme placing Beethoven alongside English music, and the conductor on both these occasions was Edward Gardner.
Gardner, who has just completed an extended period as CBSO principal guest conductor, has become something of a Birmingham treasure, and continues to be quite a presence in the city despite having his "own" orchestra in the beautiful Norwegian city of Bergen. Such is the affection for him here that I wonder if some permanent accolade might be awarded him.
But that's for the future. Thursday's concert began with a weighty, taut Beethoven Egmont Overture, followed by the composer's First Piano Concerto. Steven Osborne, this season's CBSO artist-in-residence, was soloist, bringing a Mozartean clarity of articulation combined with well-coloured pedalling, and there was a wonderful fluidity of phrasing from all concerned. Particularly memorable were the magical soundworld of the Largo, with the pearly elaboration of Osborne's filigree, and the twilit conclusion of the finale, spoilt only by Beethoven's own noisy shooting himself in the foot.
George Butterworth's Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad was a poignant reminder that a century ago the Battle of the Somme was raging, and that indeed the composer himself had been killed during its course. During his tragically short life Butterworth made quite a mark on the English musical scene, and this account revealed how much parts of Holst's Planets owe to the composer, with Oliver Janes's solo clarinet singing regretfully over the shimmering nostalgia of the strings, aching and yearning.
The zippy urgency with which Walton's Second Symphony opens provided quite a contrast under Gardner's energising conducting, sympathetic as well to the dappled, sunlit timbres which link the work to the contemporaneous Cello Concerto.
In the Lento Assai Walton gives us one of the greatest slow movements ever penned by an Englishman in any format, its gorgeous outpouring of melody caressed so fervently by a willing, alert CBSO responding to this remarkable conductor.