The Robeco SummerNights series promotes local talent by virtuously programming their events with upcoming and established Dutch performers. Each summer, these artists are given the opportunity to perform works which they love but which are not necessarily standard repertoire. Tonight, the 20-year dynamic Dutch duo pianist Ronald Brautigam and violinist Isabella van Keulen delivered a powerful, though disarming, interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto for violin, piano, and orchestra. Their symbiosis produced innocent romance contrasted with an aged, deep beauty that can only be reached through experience. Besides the necessary accompaniment for the Dutch, the festival favourite Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn bookended Mendelssohn’s early work with satisfying performances of works by Britten and Tchaikovsky.

Ronald Brautigam and Isabelle van Keulen © Marco Borggeve
Ronald Brautigam and Isabelle van Keulen
© Marco Borggeve

Britten's Simple Symphony confirms its title: an easy work separated in four movements with catchy alliterated titles. The simplicity emerges from its construction: two themes within each movement, whose variations are easy to follow. Just like the whimsical melodies in Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony or Shostakovich’s ironic frivolity in Symphony no. 9 in E flat major, Britten’s Simple Symphony contains comical aspects that perhaps stem from the young composer's reuse of his infantile piano melodies. The WCO performed with an accommodating adolescent excitement, eliciting a rush of youthful summer sentiment from their audience. The Boisterous Bourrée commenced the evening with a 20th-century pastoral dance, while the Playful Pizzicato is a deluge of rhythmic raindrops. The Sentimental Sarabande foreshadows Tchaikovsky’s melodramatic serenade later to come, and Frolicsome Finale, channelling the American West, jump-started the evening, reassuring the audience of the vigour yet to come. The performance of the duo in the concerto should be considered a highlight in recent Dutch performances.

Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto for violin, piano, and orchestra starts with the orchestra supporting a mild fugue, leaving the audience unprepared for the beauty they will later hear. In fact, one could almost be disappointed with the orchestra’s rendition of Mendelssohn were it not for the fact that this is an early work by the composer and though beautiful, not without some immature flaws rare for his genius. So the Allegro leaves the listener longing for more, the orchestra often overpowering the nuances of the piano and violin soloists. Slowly surrendering hope, this listener was then utterly surprised: Brautigam and van Keulen avenged themselves in the Adagio. Slow, subtle and deeply romantic, Mendelssohn’s middle movement could easily be performed emotionally superficially, but Brautigam and van Keulen infuse the romantic duets between their instruments with such emotional clarity and ardour that one longs for more of this musical chemistry. The duo are clearly peaking from their twenty-year experience: their generous interpretation was bewilderingly romantic and disarmingly tender. Stunning. With the generous warmth that is reserved for Dutch performances, the silver-maned lion Brautigam musically wooed the oft-coquettish van Keulen, as if in a May-December romance. The couple aligned confidently, barely searching for confirmation in each other’s eyes. They performed absolutely singularly, gaining plenty of communication from each other’s music: sometimes tiptoeing through Mendelssohn’s melodies, at other times full-heartedly crashing into them. At point, forgetting the presence of the orchestra, hoping to linger in this exalted state much longer, I almost wished for it to be gone.

But then, too, the WCO managed to impress. After the intermission, the ensemble tried admirably to complement the deep emotion from the soloists. The evening’s conductor initially seemed a bit unsuited to the quality his orchestra produced. Ruben Gazarian conducted with a melodramatic flair, tempering his wild gesticulations with exaggerated squats. These were out of place during Britten and toned down for Mendelssohn, but Tchaikovsky’s pomp finally lent itself to the Romanian’s theatricality. In Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C, the unassuming conductor finally managed to string his audience along during the Valse and guided the WCO passionately through the Élégie. In the end, this provided the audience with a memorable Tchaikovsky, though nothing compared to what the two Dutch achieved when turning young Mendelssohn's music into smouldering love.

****1