The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s former Principal Conductor Mariss Jansons described the Adagio in Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major as “some of the most beautiful music ever written”. His highly charged performances of this piece belong to some of the most memorable concert experiences at the Concertgebouw. With this challenging legacy in mind, Franz Welser-Möst made for great dissatisfaction in his postponed RCO debut. However, before the intermission in Mozart’s Second Horn Concerto, Laurens Woudenberg offered a remarkable solo creating some very memorable moments.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

Initially Welser-Möst should have made his debut in February with Schubert and Strauss dance fare. Perhaps that programme would have made better ground to familiarise himself with the RCO, because in Bruckner tonight the conductor’s approach came across as unyielding. Basic joy had to make way for militant execution. While the opening movement certainly contained some beautiful moments (colourful woodwinds and gorgeously shrilling notes from the flautists), the strings lacked brilliance and their rich depth. Welser-Möst, kept the orchestra generally simmering, never letting it reach great intensity.

The conductor also withheld the listener from being swept away in the Adagio. Foreshadowing Wagner’s death, Bruckner composed the second movement as an ode, but tonight the lush textures never intoxicated. 

During the Scherzo, Bruckner's heft remained static. It’s one thing to control this orchestra with taut reins, something Jansons managed with profound results, but with Welser-Möst the orchestra nearly asphyxiated. In his mathematical precision, the Austrian conductor refused to let the musicians breath musically. This all culminated in my most disappointing experience of Bruckner’s Seventh.

Before the intermission, lead horn player Laurens Woudenberg had his moment in the spotlight exhibiting unrelenting stamina, impressively subtle technical skills, and great musicality during Mozart’s Horn Concerto no. 2 in E flat major. In fact this was his first horn concerto, but due to publishing errors it’s titled the Second. While musically this piece doesn’t pop and was more of technical challenge for Mozart's family friend Joseph Leutgeb, Woudenburg still illuminated with resonant virtuosity the technically challenging passages.

In the Allegro maestoso, Woudenberg evoked the vibe of a leisurely countryside stroll in a majestic mountain valley on a Sunday afternoon. With his hand in the bell of his horn and breathing with the illusion of perfect ease, Woudenberg moulded each of his notes with great sensitivity. He sustained a fragile but utterly persistent suspense and produced silver and golden hues to his rounded phrasing. The Andante had many dreamy qualities.

In the Rondo più allegro, Woudenberg continued with Mozart’s challenging technical demands. His few solo passages impressively filled up the Great Hall with the sound of his instrument. Woudenberg made a sprint for the finish, and with great clarity produced an explosively energetic final few moments. The Dutch horn player proved Mozart’s transportive powers as the piece flew by very quickly. I did not anticipate tonight’s Mozart would outshine Bruckner, but that was the case here.