Riccardo Chailly was much loved as prinicpal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, a position he held between 1988 and 2004. And even though tonight he played with his own Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, he received a hero’s welcome at the Concertgebouw. As he entered the stage, there was one of the biggest rounds of applause I’ve ever seen before the concert even started, and this clearly touched the conductor.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos joined the orchestra for the first piece of the evening, Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1. Chailly guided his orchestra skilfully through the concerto, with the charisma and authority the Amsterdam audience is so familiar with. Shostakovich’s concerto is a tempestuous four-movement work, opening with a slow and drawn-out nocturne before making way for an almost diabolical scherzo. It is also one of the first Shostakovich works that contains the famous DSCH motif, played by the violin in the scherzo.

Although Kavakos was technically brilliant and had beautiful tone, I found that there was something missing in his performance, a detachment to his playing. Up until the cadenza in the third movement, it had seemed almost too beautiful, whereas Shostakovich didn’t write merely beautiful music, but music full of anguish and grittiness. Even the fast scherzo lacked some of the excitement it usually has – both because of a calmness in Kavakos’ playing and some shakiness in the woodwinds. There was some redemption for Kavakos in the cadenza, however. One of the most challenging sections of the work, it stretches to around seven minutes and really allows the violinist to present his own interpretation. Here Kavakos not only demonstrated his incredible skills but gave a heartwarming performance that left the concert hall breathless, until the timpani loudly rang out to announce the final movement.

Although Brahms wrote only four symphonies, they have become an essential part of the orchestral repertoire. The Symphony no. 3 is an impressively harmonious work: all the movements flow into each other and the feel and rhythm of each is similar. This makes for very comfortable listening, though there is the risk of playing the work too calmly and thereby limiting the effect and strength of the symphony.

Chailly’s interpretation was spot on. He chose the opposite end of the spectrum and delivered an exciting and fast symphony, full of contrasts and melodies while still retaining a clarity that not all conductors are capable of. At times, the Gewandhaus Orchestra seemed more comfortable with this work than the Shostakovich, and this made for a more passionate performance. The strings were lush, the percussion was solid, the woodwinds and brass faultless. The third movement (Poco allegretto) has a rich and beautiful melody that exudes a certain warmth, and the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s strings were stunning. After the enthusiastic applause and standing ovation, the orchestra treated us to an encore of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which provided the triumphant ending Chailly’s return to the Concertgebouw deserved.