After having demonstrated his qualities with Mahler last week, Daniele Gatti returned to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra this evening with a diverse programme. Three distinctive works allowed the audience to experience Gatti with Schumann, Berg and Wagner. The evening was not a complete success, but there were enough highpoints to satisfy the audience. Leonidas Kavakos stole the show as soloist evoking a sad and mysterious universe from Berg’s Violin Concerto. And though disappointing with Schumann, Gatti rebounded with a steamy rendition of the "Prelude" and "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

Gatti performed Schumann’s triumphant Symphony no. 3 in E flat major in Claudio Abbado’s memorial concert with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to much success, but tonight his excessively gesticulated tempi and stiff posture did not bring out the best of the RCO. The opening Lebhaft sounded decent, but lacked spirit and brilliance. The following two movements Scherzo: Sehr mäßig and Nicht schell, lacking energy and the build-up from the preceding movement, resulted in a very weak tension. Feierlich, the fourth movement, came out the best as Gatti raised a brooding atmosphere – perhaps briefly borrowed from the conductor's Mahlerian experience. The horns and cellos worked their motifs intensely back and forth. Gatti effectively directed the trombones to pulsate softly underneath adding to the movement’s solemn mood. Consequently, the final movement Lebhaft benefited from this tension, ending the piece on a better note. Though Gatti keeps distinctive and elegant measure, it seemed detractingly ornamental at times. This would complement Wagner's erotic tension later, but with Schumann it hurt the musical momentum.

After the break, Kavakos joined the orchestra for a terrific performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto “Dem Andenken eines Engels”. In the second of three concertos with the RCO this season, Kavakos cemented his position as beloved Artist-in-Residence. Gatti assisted expertly offering a richly layered texture from all the timbres of the RCO. After wholeheartedly hugging the concertmaster, the Greek violinist opened the first movement’s Andante with the twelve notes in Berg’s challenging though emotive twelve-tone sequence. The flute, clarinet and harp created a marvelous tapestry of colourful dimensions. Fully embedded in the orchestra, the democratic Kavakos played exquisitely with the other musicians. As he continued to move between accessible late-Romantic lyrical passages and Berg's atonal acrobatics, Kavakos' introverted sensitive nature lubricated the jumping chords adding with warm passion. Gatti neatly compiled the layers; the soft percussive rhythms and belching trombones high points in the tapestry. Berg’s inclusion of a Viennese Waltz briefly provided a moment of lightness in the piece, perhaps representing the youthfulness of the too early deceased Manon Gropius, the young soul hidden in Berg’s loving title “To the Memory of an Angel”. Full of feeling, the cohesive ensemble moved through the Allegretto, ending the first movement in a melancholic state.

The second movement opened with an unsettling Allegro. Kavakos’ approach demonstrated his musicality and technical wizardry. He continued to impress as he simultaneously plucked and played his violin without any theatricality, all seemingly without effort. With Gatti the layers of the orchestra sounded transparent and were a joy to discern: soft ruffling of the snare drums, while the music moved between the timbres of the clarinet, oboe and flute. Kavakos, always the main thread in the tapestry, sparkled brightly and evoked an array of emotional moments. Berg’s citation and reworking of Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug” came across excellently as Kavakos evoked a sense of exalted mystery. The highpoint in the piece was in the Adagio towards the ending in his exciting duet with Jörgen van Rijen on the trombone. The two created an intensely energetic interaction. In the end, Kavakos closed this emotional concerto with that esoteric twelve-tone series from the opening. It was the best performance of Berg’s concerto I have witnessed, and the audience offered a rousing ovation.

The effective programming of the "Prelude" and "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde accentuated the lyrical aspects of Berg’s concerto. The charged conductor ably transitioned from the Austrian's atonal mysteries to the German's intense romance. From the beginning, Gatti electrified the orchestra. Even in his stretched rests, he would create a remarkable suspense. The lush strings glowed in the surges and waves of Wagner's "Prelude". Towards the end of "Liebestod", the Italian infused the RCO with additional energy by becoming increasingly more expressive in his guidance and posture. During the crescendi the strings reached a brilliant and skin-crawling suspense from which erotic charges erupted. Slowly, he fluidly reduced the intensity into a peaceful ending. In the end, the Italian maestro exhibited excellent chemistry with the orchestra, compensating greatly for his disappointing Schumann. After the superlative Berg, this evening turned out to be most rewarding.