Judging by the many empty seats in the Elisabeth Centre, Antwerp concertgoers may not be very matinal, in spite of the alluring programme – and the pre-concert coffee and croissants generously included with the tickets. Yet those who braved the Sunday morning start were in for a treat. This matinée by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (ASO) was dubbed “Alban Gerhardt plays Tchaikovsky”. In retrospect, the performance by the German cellist of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme proved an absolute highlight, but at the same time we were introduced to a promising newcomer, the highly-touted Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, only 22 years old, currently Principal guest conductor with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and soon-to-be Chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic.

Gerhardt, gently authoritative, immediately captured attention with his rich tone and nuanced phrasing in the Tchaikovsky. His 1710 Goffriller cello is evidently a ravishing instrument with an especially vibrant and dark lower register. Performing the Fitzenhagen version of the Rococo Variations each section naturally acquired its own distinct character in Gerhardt’s hands and, while the virtuoso passages were dispatched with effortless panache, it was the slower variations that lingered in one’s mind. This is Pyotr Ilyich at his most beguiling and Gerhardt’s cello made the Andante sostenuto variation sing from every bar, evoking the lyrical world of Tchaikovsky’s operas and ballets.

Mäkelä and the ASO contributed in no small measure to the appeal of this reading. A cellist himself, Mäkelä mentioned in a short on-stage interview preceding the concert that he had performed the Rococo Variations several times as a soloist, adding jokingly it often worked better without a conductor. It is doubtful, though, that such accuracy and detail as here would have been obtained, hadn’t he been on the rostrum. The careful orchestral balance, the precise attacks, the attentive accompaniment and often intimate exchanges between soloist and orchestra sections, all contributed to make this performance such a standout. Quite naturally, as a fellow cellist, he knew exactly how to make his soloist shine. The playing of the ASO, appearing in a light formation and with violins divided left/right, boasted plenty of character and colour.

But there was more. With just a short break to change the orchestral setup, the concert continued with Sibelius’ magnificent Symphony no. 2 in D major. Now in full force, the ASO seemed almost miraculously transformed for the particular sonorities of Sibelius. It’s no mean feat, by the way, that conductor and orchestra were able to create such a strong rapport for just this one outing. Yet, for a relatively new kid on the block, Mäkelä seems to know quite well what he wants. A tall, lean and enthusiastic presence on the podium, he vibrates energy and inspiration alike.

The Sibelius got a compelling, straightforward performance, thriving on luminous textures, fluent dynamics and judicious balances, as well between orchestral sections as between the bigger architecture and the building blocks. The movements were generally spacious, even stately, and although this approach somewhat blurred the contrast between the opening Allegretto and the following Tempo andante, an organic sense of flow remained intact throughout, up to the triumphant finale. Even if some orchestral details in this complex score could ideally have been more pronounced, especially from the horns and timpani, this wasn’t a superficial reading by any means. The granite-like climaxes of the second movement, interspersed with atmospheric silences, were extremely powerful and at the end of the journey Mäkelä created an irresistible surge, finally unleashing all the pent-up energy from the preceding movements. All credit to the brass players whose seemingly inexhaustible reserves ensured an ending in glorious beauty. Elsewhere, as in the third movement’s Trio, there was sensitive playing to delight with the pastoral oboe joined by the solo cello. Overall, the ASO confirmed once again its quality, whether in solo parts or in ensemble playing.

Sundays don’t get a better start than this.