Flemish orchestra deFilharmonie came to Amsterdam on a sunny Sunday morning and brought even sunnier music with them. Lead by Jaap van Zweden, who knows the Concertgebouw like no other, they played a program containing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, two works of incredible high energy that left many a concertgoer with a smile on her face.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture is one of his most well-known works, and deFilharmonie embodied the warm orchestration and intense colouring beautifully. I always find the work reminiscent of some of Tchaikovky’s orchestral overtures, in that the performance can really make the difference between it being a simple, entertaining and maybe even slightly cheesy piece of music and it being much more than that. From the opening bars onwards deFilharmonie, under the more than apt guidance of van Zweden, clearly belonged to the second category. Special mention should go to their principal flutist who was absolutely extraordinary in her solos, but the entire orchestra played flawlessly. The Overture was dynamic and exhilarating, never complacent or overly clean.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra can be a confusing work for listeners. The first confusing thing about it is the title, as it certainly wouldn’t be amiss to call it a symphony, yet Bartók was more comfortable with this title because of the virtuosity it requires from all the players. And this it certainly does: there wasn’t a single musician in deFilharmonie that didn’t impress with their virtuosity, clarity and timing; everything was spot on. The brass was bold and the woodwinds were animated, the strings were smooth, with the conductor keeping everything together.

The Concerto for Orchestra is typical Bartók in many ways; very rhythmically powerful, often straying from tonality, and full of humour, it is traditional in structure but still very idiosyncratic. In many ways I’ve always found the piece a rollercoaster of emotions; at times you’re laughing, other times you want to cry, other times you’re wondering what’s going on, other times you’re just comfortably being swept away by some beautiful music. This is one of Bartók’s strengths, he was such a versatile and intensely exciting composer that most of his works do not have a dull moment.

The fourth movement (Intermezzo) is one of those musical moments when people start laughing and shiftily looking around them to figure out if they should be laughing or not. It famously contains a parody of Shostakovich’s invasion theme in his Symphony no. 7 and certainly seems to poke fun at its seriousness and heaviness. If there was an invasion in this piece it would be a party! Instead of a long-winded invasion, Bartók is (throughout the entire concerto) more fond of sudden stops at seemingly random moments. As a listener, this keeps you on your toes, but it requires a lot of the orchestra and the conductor.

There is a raucous energy to the entire piece, and the last two movements in particular that needs to be kept in check while still sounding like the music is trying to escape from its rhythmic confines. Bartók’s familiarity with folk music meant that some of his classical music sounds a bit loose, which is why it works. deFilharmonie clearly enjoyed this challenge and Jaap van Zweden lead them down the right path, of high energy and virtuosity – while still making sure everyone was where they should be. Van Zweden then led the orchestra into the finale movement, which was executed with the same energy as the fourth, while the warm sound of the orchestra gained the upper hand again, which worked beautifully.