Make no mistake, the experienced Symphony Hall audience certainly knows how to recognise exceptional quality when it hears it, and we had that in spades on Monday in terms of orchestra, soloist and conductor. The ovation was tremendous, but mercifully evinced no encores; they would have spoilt the spell.
Let's begin with the soloist, the modest, unassuming Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires, performing Mozart's last piano concerto, no. 27 in B-flat, with an insight which brought a confiding intimacy to every note she played, even when her fingers were flashing with filigree.
And even at her most reflective she imparted a gentle forward impetus, a freshness which made the music's apparent simplicity speak worlds. Her attention to conductor Riccardo Chailly and his tiny Gewandhausorchester was exemplary, and all of this served to focus onto Mozart himself.
Richard Strauss focussed all attention upon himself in his two works which framed the programme, the undoubtedly self-aggrandising Don Juan and the autobiographical Ein Heldenleben.
The orchestra, now huge for these tone-poems, played with a biting attack, scrupulous accentuation (the opening of Ein Heldenleben a prime example), and a relish for the instrumental detail with which the composer peppered his textures. Special praise for concertmaster Frank-Michael Erben, his tiny solos in Don Juan sweet-toned, and his huge ones in Ein Heldenleben equally so, despite the often vicious ferocity of Strauss's writing in these depictions of his shrewish wife.
Chailly balanced the sonorities with a natural authority, an almost fatherly concern for his charges, and it was heartwarming to witness the awareness between the strings sections and the overall intelligence and musicality of this band of professors (many of them tutors at the Mendelssohn-founded Leipzig Conservatoire).
Chailly will be leaving this orchestra in the hands of Andris Nelsons next year. It is good to know that this much-loved Birmingham ex-pat will be back at the helm of a European orchestra equal with the CBSO in repute and quality -- though not privileged with the acoustic of Symphony Hall, which still never ceases to amaze me after nearly a quarter of a century.