One of the dilemmas for a conductor is when to perform popular pieces. This is not really a problem if you are already in the Premier League of conductors – people will always come to see you. However, if you are not yet a household name, you need to pick your moments. Oscar Wilde said that "Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art." He is, of course, wrong. But the point remains that, however good the music is, you don't want to be tarred with the "safe" brush by always performing familiar works. So when you do, it has to count. Christoph König's solution in his latest appearance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was to choose three of the most popular works from big name composers, and heavyweight ones at that, to provide something memorable.

Christoph König © Pedro Lobo, Casa da musica
Christoph König
© Pedro Lobo, Casa da musica

Wagner's Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was a stirring concert opener, with its interweaving themes and masterful orchestration. This was a perfect way to experience König's affable and engaging podium style, with expressive flowing arms that sold his performance instructions to the orchestra with clarity and ease. He was effective at nurturing subtleties of changes in dynamics and pace, and provided nice contrasts between ebullience and chippy staccato. He clearly gave careful attention to detail, bringing out the inner voices from amongst the dense textures, and the momentum was not lost as a result. A rather grandiose performance.

In the last couple of weeks, Tasmin Little's schedule has included violin concertos by Walton, Elgar and Bruch before taking on Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major. Notoriously difficult technically, it is first and foremost a lyrical piece, both elements playing to Little's strengths. The Allegro moderato first movement felt a little deliberate and measured, but this did allow some of the subtleties of the melodic lines to come through compared with other more showy performances, and I began to enjoy the leisurely pace more as the movement progressed. Little's gorgeous singing quality from her violin came through from the opening solo, and I particularly liked the way she cultured an evenness of tone across all strings and registers. König controlled the RPO wonderfully in support, with a glowing feel to the woodwinds and horns opening the Canzonetta, and with solo violin against muted strings providing an intimate, chamber-like quality. This was a more sentimental reading of this movement, with heavier vibrato and use of portamento, but at a rather slowish pace. The Finale had a feathery lightness, with crisp articulation and delicacy mixed with strident tuttis and a lively vibrancy in the Russian dance theme.

From the ominous opening motto theme to the gritty and joyous climax, König's performance of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in E minor was characterised by careful and sensitive phrasing and by not over-sentimentalising the piece. For the most part, this brought out more of Rachmaninov's skilful orchestral colouring without turning it all into a mush. König folded in the textural layers nicely, and maintained sustained pressure and momentum through the long crescendos and extended melodic lines. The overall sound of the RPO was impressive throughout, with warm indulgent strings, majestic brass and plaintive woodwinds. The first movement felt a little laboured, slightly lacking in drive, but I liked some of the detail picked out, such as the grinding violas and brass in the development section.

The sharp, bouncy Scherzo thrusted purposefully forwards, with gushing melodies handled with panache and the counterpoint section clipped and precise. One of the highlight's was Katherine Lacy's wonderfully expressive clarinet solo in the Adagio, conveying a listless sense of longing. The Finale opened brightly at a brisk pace, though oddly lacking in definition and articulation in the more exuberant passages and some sections of the orchestra slightly overpowering. Balance issues aside, König maintained impressive drive through this movement, complete with an energetic flourish as his baton flew into the cellos (smiles all round as it was quickly returned!). 

***11