One of the joys of attending concerts of the Filarmonica della Scala is the chance they provide to hear the orchestra directed by a small and loyal family of guest conductors. Valery Gergiev, Daniele Gatti and Fabio Luisi are just some of the regular visitors that will lead concerts this year. But chemistry rarely sounds better than when Myung-whun Chung is on the podium – so frequent and rewarding are his appearances with these players, both for symphonic and operatic repertoire, that you'd be forgiven for assuming that he is the official deputy to music director Riccardo Chailly.

Myung-whun Chung and Leonidas Kavakos © Silvia Lelli
Myung-whun Chung and Leonidas Kavakos
© Silvia Lelli

In the same week that he opens a La Scala production of Verdi's gloomy Simon Boccanegra, Chung conducted the Filarmonica in a programme of radiant Brahms. Joining him as the soloist for the Violin Concerto in D major was Leonidas Kavakos, who treated us to a performance of extremes. The violinist brought impressive fervour to the solo's urgent opening statement, a hauntingly glassy tone to spidery arpeggios and a gorgeous warmth of tone to the streaming lyricism that follows. In Kavakos' hands, the mercurial cadenza showcased the instrument's emotive range. That the violinist can produce a muscular sound was most evident from his robust delivery of the thicket of double-stops in the finale.

But Kavakos sounded at his best in the slow movement, its glowing lyricism well-suited to his typically reflective style. In a work where orchestra and soloist are placed on an equal footing, it was fortunate that Chung was able to draw playing of corresponding sensitivity. The opening oboe solo was lovingly-shaped, before the orchestra's syrupy lines broadened luxuriantly, like a lazy cat stretching on the sofa. If one sensed that this orchestra is warming to Brahms, then its performance of the Symphony no. 2 in D major provided confirmation. The Filarmonica's sound did not not always feel ideal (it was often top heavy, and the brass sounded underpowered). But the Milanese band is acquiring a distinctly Germanic hue, and its traditionally luminous strings in particular sound richer and nuttier. It is surely no coincidence that Riccardo Chailly has decades of experience directing some of the chief orchestral proponents of the Germanic symphonic tradition.

And with Chung on the podium, the Filarmonica played with a spontaneity that brought Brahms' restless music to life. He was hands-off at times, the resultant sensation less of a conductor rallying his forces than of the orchestra running on its own internally-generated energy, and his free treatment of the tempi (especially at the cadences) made the orchestra soar. Chung was able to draw a wealth of colour in a performance in which the score's counterposed light and dark elements were always finely balanced.

The temperamental first movement was by turns serene and unruly, and in the luxuriant second Chung laced a thick blanket of string sound with brighter colour from trickling winds and yearning brass. The bed of pizzicato in the third might have communicated more abandon. But, with its brilliant alternation between plucky surges and maniacal outbursts, the bustling finale hit the spot.