Concertgebouw Orchestra Concert – 19th March

Concerto in A minor for violin, cello and orchestra
Symphony No.1

Vadim Repin (violin)
Mischa Maisky (cello)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A concert with potentially too much Brahms in it! I did wonder if Brahms 4 would have been the better choice – it closes with a passacaglia – and only twenty-or-so years separate Brahms’s ’back to Bach’ finale and Webern’s forward-looking concentrate. Perhaps Chailly had a cunning plan, feeling that the rather claustrophobic world of Webern’s official Op.1 and the contemplation of Brahms’s Double needed a summit-reaching counterpart, which the starkly tragic Brahms E minor would not have been.

If ’dark to light’ was the theme of the concert, then the C minor to C major symphony encapsulated this splendidly. Like his Decca Concertgebouw recording (digital, but old enough to have been on LP, which I still have) Chailly’s Brahms One remains rather classical and taut with few ’traditional’ slowings. Chailly observed the first movement repeat then, but omitted it here – this begs the question about how important repeats are to overall structure. For me, such things are very much related to size and musical argument. I prefer to lose this particular repeat because it places cumulative weight on to the finale, the coda is then the triumphant ’overhang’ it should be. Chailly got the proportions spot-on in this performance, ensuring that the motto’s triumphant return was without any tempo reduction – Brahms marks nothing in the score here (not even ’in tempo’, which is what is silently implied of course) – and therefore spared us the grotesqueries that too many conductors inflict here.

If Chailly’s was an overall concise view – which didn’t preclude some sweetly lyrical strings in the slow movement – he reached for brush and canvas to paint a particularly spacious ’sunrise’ chorale (trombones appearing for the first time here) to take Brahms into the Romantic era, presenting, on bended-knee, the C major tune as a sotto voce prayer, with no stringendo (none indicated, but most conductors do it) allowing Brahms’s dynamic and speed increase to be genuinely subito. This worked very well. Chailly’s thought-through Brahms 1, with much pertinent comment from the woodwind and horns, and wonderfully gentle and expressive strings, was rather magnificent.

The RCO’s unforced, transparently-detailed way of making music also illuminated the A minor concerto, which found Maisky’s lusty attack threatening his sound and intonation, both of which suffered, and Repin secure and poised. Indeed, while he gave a masterly exhibition of virtuoso violin-playing, his unaffected phrasing and tone was an object lesson that ’less is more’ – Repin’s a comprehensive musician. At their most persuasive in exchanges of hushed intimacies, Maisky was out-manoeuvred in unison passages, his more assertive manner, with some phrasal short-change along the way, certainly came from the heart though. With an attentive Chailly and an eloquently ’sung’ middle movement, a lively and likeable performance ensued.

Throughout the evening the winds and horns didn’t always get it together or agree on pitch (not that it mattered greatly for there was so much that was personal, distinctive and agile). This was most noticeable in the Webern, given the spacious treatment by Chailly, which emphasised its trance-like state. Chailly teased out details and with them underlined Webern’s ambiguities of tonality. Darkness-struggle-uncertainty might sum up this, here, 12-minute, tightly organised re-think of an ’ancient’ musical procedure, one signalling new compositional paths opening up.

How different is the ravishing moonlit world of Giuseppe Martucci’s beautiful Notturno, Op.70/1 – written in 1901, just a few years before Webern’s shadowy Passacaglia – which was the blissful encore that the RCO played with such refinement, inner warmth and beauty of sound. Rather special, something the RCO and Chailly should record, perhaps as part of a CD of Italian Orchestral Miniatures.

  • The RCO returns next season for three Sunday afternoon concerts in the RFH, all beginning at 3.30 – as follows
  • 14 October – Ravel and Stravinsky – Chailly (Thibaudet plays Ravel’s G major concerto)
  • 9 December – Mahler 6 – Bernard Haitink
  • 10 March 2002 – Tristan Keuris, Shostakovich and Prokofiev – Chailly (Repin in Shostakovich VC1)
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