What to expect from an all Rachmaninov concert with one of the world’s greatest conductors? Riccardo Chailly, former Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, is held in deep affection by the loyal and dedicated audience in Amsterdam and there was a certain buzz in the concert hall as this towering figure in the orchestra’s history made his first return since 2018. The audience were prepared for greatness, and they were not disappointed.

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Eduardus Lee

The two works chosen by Chailly for this series of four concerts with the young Japanese pianist, Mao Fujita, are intricately entwined. The First Symphony is rarely heard in the concert hall. Indeed, the RCO has only ever performed it twice, (1982 with Ashkenazy at the helm). Rachmaninov was reputedly so dissatisfied with the symphony, that after the premiere he entered a deep depression leaving him unable to compose. In 1900, and now recovered, Rachmaninov composed a work which pleased him greatly, the Second Piano Concerto. So great was his affection that Rachmaninov toured the work all over Europe, including seven times with RCO between 1908 and 1928. Tonight’s soloist had big shoes to fill. So much history; so much expectation.

Emerging from nowhere, the opening chords of the concerto matched the ebb and flow of the rich, romantic orchestral sound. There was a lovely lyricism to Fujita’s playing and even though some tempo changes were more successful than others, the restrained dynamics led to beautifully timed climaxes. This was a reading full of the innocence of youth where very intimate moments, especially in the ethereal cadenza with perfectly placed tenuto notes holding the music for just that extra moment, contrasted with brilliant scales, full of energy. The RCO was magnificent. Magical and understated horn solos epitomised the wonderful warmth of the brass sound, equalled by silky smooth flute and clarinet solos. Violas were resplendent, similarly the seamless bassoon countermelody and delicate cymbal crashes. It was in the encore, from Mozart’s Piano Sonata no 16 in C major, K, 545, that Fujita’s very intimate sound seemed most at home, performed with a very improvisatory feel.

Mao Fujita, Riccard Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Eduardus Lee

In complete contrast, Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 1 in D minor was laden with contradictions, full of light and darkness, plaintive and melancholic moments, sumptuous melodies, and highly syncopated contrapuntal writing. The RCO savoured it all as melodies passed seamlessly around the orchestra, interspersed with throbbing swells from the strings and wind alike. Trumpets cut through the orchestral texture like a knife through butter, and the tuba and basses revelled in their melodic bass-lines providing a wonderful cushion on which the orchestra could flourish.

An ethereal string sound characterised the second movement. The second violins’ countermelody in the third movement was a joy, contrasting wonderfully with menacing muted horns signalling impending doom, while a restrained, precise brass fanfare heralded the fourth. This was incredibly exciting music, eventually stilled by the reverberating tam-tam, before more menacing brass led us back to an emphatic and majestic finale. This is a much underrated and fiendishly difficult work. How the audience loved it.

At the centre of it all was Chailly, truly a master of his profession. Wonderfully reassuring yet possessing a clarity of expression and articulation rarely witnessed, he was on fire. Clearly energised and inspired from working with such fantastic musicians, Chailly displayed an athleticism more akin to someone half his age. An inspiration to us all.