Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Brahms and Beethoven from the Royal Concertgebouw

4 November 2022

Warhorses wearing impressively polished tack.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is in town for a couple of gigs at the Barbican. Saturday evening sees a more challenging programme of Mahler 9 and a UK premiere of a work by Rick van Veldhuizen, but Friday evening’s programme consisted of a couple of crowd-pleasers: Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s 6th symphony (‘the Pastoral’).

The Brahms is not always an easy work to deliver convincingly, as it’s a hefty old thing that’s trying hard to be a symphony (certainly its lengthy first movement). The easy part of the balancing trick is to adjust the dynamic between soloist and orchestra; the more difficult task is to disentangle Brahms’ opulent orchestration into the feel of a concerto. Suffice it to say that the orchestra, under the emphatic yet precise direction of Daniel Harding, and the studied excellence of soloist Leonidas Kavakos managed both of these with insouciant brilliance, such that each musical statement had force and clarity, allowing the variations in the orchestral (and solo passages) to shine (the winds at the opening of the second movement were a prime example of this), whilst maintaining the integrity, drive and shape of the work.

Harding is a regular guest conductor with the Royal Concertgebouw, and it’s a pleasure to hear the pairing. He’s physically a bold yet fluid conductor, directing everything with a broad range of gestures (at one point there was a near miss as an outflung arm very nearly took out both the Leader and Kavakos), but all of this pays off in the communication of every nuance to an orchestra that absolutely knows what it’s doing. He’s also a fan of a marcato ending to a statement, and this made for an enjoyably mannered rendering of the ‘Hungarian style’ of the final movement.

“…each musical statement had force and clarity…”

Kavakos’ account was of an expected brilliance, and his contrasts of the fistfuls of double-stopped chords wrenched from the instrument, and the exquisitely lyrical passages (the floated high notes at the end of the second movement, for example) were impressive. The first movement cadenza was almost a short sonata in itself – full of elegantly contrasted tones and timbres, and perhaps the inspiration for his choice of a movement from Bach’s first Partita for his subsequent encore piece. He’s very much an introverted soloist, though, and, apart from a couple of ‘dare me’ glances to the audience in the last movement (in which his bravura technique repaid dividends, and allowed a little warming to his stage presence), he remained in a constant one-to-one communion with his instrument. While this kind of exclusion is not an unusual feature of soloists, some degree of acknowledgement that the audience is there (and preferably some interactive communication) always makes for a more enjoyable experience, and a feeling that turning out to a live performance has had some extra value beyond listening to a recording.

It’s difficult to deliver a memorable account of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, as it’s such a concert staple, but the combination of Harding’s analytical approach, and the orchestra’s long-established musicality made for just such an event. In one’s head, the 6th is very much a string-dominated symphony, but the Concertgebouw’s woodwind section made you remember that they have a starring role too, and the glorious liquid notes (especially in the second and final movements) just kept on delighting. The strings, of course, also shone with warm, rich tones (with some energetically rhythmic thrumming from the cellos and basses in the first and third movements) and it was interesting to hear the second movement played with all the violins, violas and cellos muted (as in Beethoven’s original scoring – later altered to just two muted cellos); this is definitely a move for other orchestras to consider, as it provided a marked contrast in timbre. Once again, Harding’s love of a marcato statement came to the fore in the wind passages in the latter half of the final movement, adding that touch of a unique interpretation to the whole.

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