Despite a number of concert overtures with intriguing titles like The Bride of Messina or Julius Caesar, Schumann actually wrote only one opera, and that had a troublesome reception. It was with the Genoveva overture that this concert given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra began. In charge was Andrew Gourlay, replacing at short notice the indisposed Domingo Hindoyan.

Fumiaki Miura
© Yuji Hori

With a backward glance at the Second Symphony and pre-echoes of both the Cello Concerto and Manfred, this overture is more of a tone poem, moving from shadowy C minor to sunny C major at the end. Gourlay kept rhythms taut, a little too rigidly at times, textures clean and transparent. Though the horns made a stirring contribution, Romantic atmosphere was only just hinted at and the concluding stretta failed to set the heart racing.

In the current season the young Japanese violinist Fumiaki Miura, a past winner of the Joachim Violin Competition, is the RPO’s Artist-in-Residence. He delivered a technically very secure reading of the Violin Concerto in D major by Brahms, the plethora of rapid broken chords, scales and double stopping holding no fear for him. From the start this was an utterly serious interpretation, the heavy tread of the orchestral introduction already signalling gravity and immediately picked up by the soloist in his first entry. What soon became apparent, however, was the absence of much variety in bowing pressure which, together with Miura’s tightly controlled tone, meant that expressiveness was in short supply.

As if to underline that melting ardour should be a contrasting feature in any truly satisfying interpretation, John Roberts’ fine oboe solo at the opening of the Adagio pointed the listener towards those essential Romantic vistas and Elysian fields. Though there was little that proved to be individual in the way his instrument spoke to the audience, Miura achieved a wonderful degree of serenity in the closing pages of the slow movement, Gourlay and the RPO matching him in those moments of calm inwardness.

There was plenty of orchestral gusto in the Finale, the composer’s markings properly observed, yet without undue attention paid to the Hungarian gypsy elements that require not only rubato but also considerable dynamic variation. As a composer Brahms was often haunted by Beethoven’s shadow, and the common key signature is not the only characteristic that their respective violin concertos share. Yet there is a world of difference between the dourness of his First Symphony and the radiant lyricism with which this concerto in the major key is suffused. Ultimately, this was a case of too much head and not enough heart.

Gourlay strikes me as one of those conductors who set a basic tempo and then maintain it throughout a particular movement. This certainly strengthens structural cohesion: there were no derailments, detours or comfort breaks during this traversal of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor. The Scherzo brought an exhilarating sense of strutting, underpinned by snappy rhythms. Yet the Trio section offered little by way of contrast, the tempo just a little slower than for the Scherzo itself.

Darkness was kept very much at bay as the symphony unfolded, though Gourlay repeatedly drew some additional muted colour from the violas and highlighted the vibrancy of the clarinets. The slow movement was graced by mellifluous sounds from the entire woodwind choir, and in climaxes here and elsewhere the RPO never failed to deliver a mighty punch. However, in a hall this size there is a case to be made for much greater dynamic differentiation. There were no real whispers, nor were there any real smiles in the Finale.