These Sunday matinee concerts from the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra are a splendid idea. Led by their new Chief Conductor Elim Chan, they brought an accessible all-Russian double bill pairing Prokofiev’s exquisite Classical Symphony as the entrée, with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor as the meatier centrepiece. The Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček, who won the 2016 International Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition with this very concerto, could repeat that notable feat here and now. Pre-concert croissants and drinks included, let’s face it, there are worse ways to start your Sunday.

Lukáš Vondráček
© Irene Kim

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is a true feast for strings and woodwinds, and in this respect the full-house audience was spoiled by the ASO. In a spirited account, Chan deftly characterised each movement with well-chosen tempi and dynamics, as with an obvious ear for orchestral balance and colour. The orchestra was responsive and alert. Strings fenced with woodwinds, the bassoon almost stoically added a jolly twist to the elegant violins. The Larghetto became a ravishing moment of repose, high violins competing in sweetness with the flute, while later in the movement the winds fluidly delivered delicate lines above the staccato strings. The Gavotta balanced solemnity with a touch of playfulness and Chan’s respectful dynamics injected the final movement with plenty of zest as well as colour.

The orchestra reformed in a slightly bigger ensemble for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, now lining up six double basses instead of four. There was much to admire in Vondráček’s rendition, foremost a beautiful sonority, a crisp articulation and a seemingly effortless delivery. Yet there were also some worrying mannerisms that grew stale rather quickly along the way. Vondráček’s tendency to play extremely soft, as in the returning theme of the first movement, made everyone sit up, especially when his pianism blended with Chan’s lavish orchestral accompaniment and was opposed to his own impetuous bursts of fast and loud passagework. This worked to exciting effect during the large buildup starting from the più vivo, which felt as a massive release of tension. The slow cadenza, too, was dynamically interesting, although unusual accentuation enhanced by occasional foot stomping would continue to interrupt Rachmaninov’s lyricism further on.

While the pianist’s habit of slowing down initially had a certain appeal as well, this pretty soon became predictable. In the Intermezzo it had turned into ponderousness and by the time the Finale was reached the natural flow was gone, as was any shading between very slow and very fast. Chan adjusted to the slower tempo that Vondráček initiated after her plush opening of the Intermezzo, and enveloped the climaxes in a romantic sheen.

There’s a fine line between genuine originality and artificiality in Rachmaninov’s Third and Vondráček jumped it regularly, most obviously in the final movement. The last orchestral climax felt both triumphant and a return to order. Greeted with a standing ovation, Vondráček returned with a searching rendition of Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie. He definitely loves long lines.