Bel canto and verismo titles will feature heavily in La Scala’s 2017/18 season as the house continues to champion infrequently performed Italian operas. While a good dose of Italian music has also featured in the symphonic programmes of the Filarmonica della Scala, it is unsurprising, considering the historical predominance of opera over orchestral music in Italy, that Music Director Riccardo Chailly has also returned to some of the German Romantic works with which he was most closely associated as chief conductor of the Gewandhaus and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras. Chailly conducted an intriguing account of Beethoven’s Seventh with the Filarmonica last March, and now he was back with a programme of Brahms.

Riccardo Chailly © Teatro alla Scala
Riccardo Chailly
© Teatro alla Scala

Anne-Sophie Mutter joined him for the Violin Concerto in D major, marking a rare appearance of the violinist in Italy. At times her sound was arrestingly throaty, the violinist attacking her opening martelé double-stopped arpeggios with tigrine strength. At others she played with unimpeded songlike fluidity, her legato phrases streaming out in myriad tonal inflections. One of the most affecting colours at her disposal was the glassy transparency that she applied in the fluttering first-movement cadenza. But it is the fulminant delivery of the jubilant finale that will ultimately stick in the mind. Chailly drew sensitive, alert playing from the orchestra; the oboe solo in the second movement was beautifully crafted.

Delivery of the symphony was no less polished. If Chailly’s recent Beethoven’s Seventh was notable for its originality, particularly for the conductor’s choice of tempi, here he opted for a straighter reading free of idiosyncrasy. Crisp, autumnal colours were strikingly applied, particularly in an uncrumpled second movement – here plucked strings were notably rustic and starchy, and wind and brass elegantly shapely – and timbrel contrasts were especially sharp between the opening movement’s brooding swoons and sunny interjections. The conductor’s predilection for textural clarity in Brahms let the rich counterpoint do the work of driving the music. This was a performance in which the smaller details were cleanly conveyed, the conductor teasing out sinuous lines with with a swivel of the wrists, yet one that also allowed for appreciation of each movement’s individual architecture.

The orchestra continues to sound slightly lightweight, and you sometimes longed for a heftier delivery. Perhaps as a result, there were passages in which playing struggled to catch fire. Yet there are also signs that Chailly is fashioning this orchestra into an increasingly lithe, dynamic unit. He favoured fleet-footed tempi over romantic indulgence in the opening movement, in which the orchestra skittered through the opening falling thirds. The Scherzo was compact and brawny, while, in the finale, Chailly opened his arms to summon a freely coursing sound propelled by pulsing lower strings. We never quite reached the cataclysmic climax that might have been in this movement, but this brisk race through Brahms’s passacaglia sent a gust of wind through the concert hall. Next season Chailly returns to another favourite composer when he conducts Mahler's Third. One awaits with bated breath.