La Scala doesn’t quite roll out the red carpet for Riccardo Chailly, but they do ferry around a podium upholstered with red velvet carpet and matching handrail. If Chailly is maestro royalty, his orchestra are loyal subjects, playing with aristocratic flair. The last time I heard them together was in a new production of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie last April. With the Filarmonica della Scala released from the pit and out on international tour, it was apt that Rossini’s feathered felon opened proceedings, its sparkling overture launching a truly magnificent evening.

Riccardo Chailly © G. Gori | Filarmonica della Scala
Riccardo Chailly
© G. Gori | Filarmonica della Scala

If you trust the composer’s memoirs, Rossini left the overture to La gazza ladra to the last minute, a frustrated Scala management imprisoning him with four stagehands “who were under orders to throw my manuscript from the window, page by page, to the copyists, who were waiting below. If the music paper wasn’t ready, they were under orders to throw me from the window!” Snare drum rattles from opposite sides of the Barbican Hall stage called the audience to attention before Rossini’s military march swaggered ebulliently. The most remarkable thing about Chailly – evident throughout the evening – is his scrupulous control over dynamics. Rossini’s crescendos take time to build, and Chailly gradated them with immense precision, never stepping too hard on the pedal too soon. There was humour too, not least in the little figure for two bassoons – with trombone literally poking between them – before the jaunty piccolo theme.

A fierce timpani roll plunged us into Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, a slightly curious Norwegian interloper in what is largely a Russian-programmed tour. Benjamin Grosvenor was the steely-toned pianist in a push-me-pull-you account where I wasn’t always convinced he and Chailly wanted to go in the same direction at the same time. Grosvenor’s playing had a wonderful improvisatory feel, a diamond-hard trill glittering at the start of the first movement cadenza. With no disrespect to the pianist, it was Chailly’s ear for detail in the orchestral accompaniment that tickled fresh colours from the score; muted violins here, brazen horns and a bassoon counterpoint there. Grosvenor’s encore – Erotik, one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – was sensitively phrased.

Riccardo Chailly, Benjamin Grosvenor and the Filarmonica della Scala © Andrea Angeli
Riccardo Chailly, Benjamin Grosvenor and the Filarmonica della Scala
© Andrea Angeli

The Filarmonica della Scala was the invention of former music director Claudio Abbado, who wanted to give the musicians chance to perform outside their usual operatic repertoire. Yet there was operatic abandon aplenty in a thrilling performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. From the flared nostrils of the Scala brass snorting their opening Fate motif, you just knew this was going to be something special. Yet it was no hysterical account, Chailly always able to pull on the reins, pacing everything with expert attention.

Filarmonica della Scala © G. Gori | Filarmonica della Scala
Filarmonica della Scala
© G. Gori | Filarmonica della Scala

Strings, under the eye of youthful leader Laura Marzadori, glowed. The oboe displayed Italianate warmth in the Andantino, while clarinet solos were engaging recitatives. The crash-bang-wallop finale sizzled, driven by Stephan Cuerlis who played the timpani with relish and nonchalant panache throughout – and all without a score. Yet the highlight was the pizzicato playing in the Scherzo, which was not only precise but dynamically wide-ranging, from big fat popcorn double bass plucks to tiny violin pinpricks.

Chailly returned the orchestra to the pit for their encore, a pulsating account of the overture to Verdi’s I vespri siciliani that had one pining to hear the complete opera again. An evening to have you punching the air in delight.

*****