Ahead of its late-summer tour, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra warms up with two programmes in what are considered high points of the Robeco Summer Nights. Due to Mariss Jansons's early retirement as Principal Conductor, it was up to Daniel Harding to awaken the RCO from its summer slumber. Tonight, the Brit led the orchestra through an uneven performance with many great moments from the soloists and sections. However, a lack of cohesion in ensemble ultimately resulted in a fragmented rendition of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major. On the bright side, in an exciting dialogue with the RCO, Kristian Bezuidenhout delivered a refreshing highlight with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 in B flat major, for a memorable performance.

Harding opened the evening with Dvořák’s Othello, a volatile work with explosive passages. This work belongs to a trilogy of overtures through which the Czech wanted to convey mankind in different states of being. As it is often overshadowed in the repertoire by the composer’s more joyful Carnival, tonight turned out to be a première for the RCO. Othello begins in sonata form, but Dvořák’s adapts this form to fit the dramatic moods of Shakespeare’s narrative. Though lagging in suspense during the slow and romantic passages, Harding produced intensely thrilling moments during the Moor’s outbursts of jealousy (exotic woodwinds), as well as his rage and despair (tempestuous strings).

With a reduced orchestra for the Mozart concerto, Bezuidenhout created a seemingly whimsical world with refined melodic phrasing and expert rhythmic pacing. Deceptive in his lack of theatrics, Bezuidenhout infused his music with surprising pizzazz. His modest nature and breeziness also shaped his disarming vibe. The Allegro vivace opened with the strings offering lots of warmth with their rich presence. A clever dialogue unfolded between the soloist and the RCO. It wasn’t until later in the movement, in the cadenza, that Bezuidenhout truly impressed with the dreamy ambience he created, a product of his fluid performance.

The Andante un poco sostenuto opened with Mozart’s slightly serious mood. Yet, with his airy energy Bezuidenhout brought a lighthearted element to this second movement, softening the intensity of the sombre passages, in a refreshing interpretation just right for a summer evening. His dialogues with the orchestra moved seamlessly back and forth as the pianist appeared well in tune with each section. In the finale Allegro vivace, Harding manoeuvered the strings and woodwind section through Mozart’s changing meters, while Bezuidenhout demonstrated his technical mastery, creating transparency in Mozart’s rhythmic complexities.

After the break, Harding returned with Dvořák’s optimistic Eighth Symphony. All the sections were in good shape, but not completely in tune with each other. Of the brass, the trombones evoked spectacular jollity in the first movement Allegro con brio, and later the brilliant trumpets regally opened the finale Allegro, ma non troppo.

The section principals were also in good shape. In the first movement, the audience smiled as the catchy birdcall emerged from Kersten McCall’s flute supported by Vincent Cortvrint’s piccolo, who cherished the spotlight with his remarkably polished sustained high note later. And not in the least the concertmaster Vesko Eshkenazy, whose penetrating violin solo captivated the audience as he thinly coated the melody in the Adagio with a sligthly shrill radiance.

Harding led many exhilarating moments and was particularly successful in creating the atmosphere of a fabulous ball with the voluptuous waltz in the Allegretto grazioso. However, a lack of shrilling contrasts and uneven volume led to muddled passages. On top of that, the energetic high-speed chases the Czech sets on felt episodic, lacking continuity. Tonight, the orchestra’s usual vivacious momentum never appeared long enough to electrify Dvořák’s thrilling rollercoaster.