This first concert of two by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Barbican this weekend offered two of the most frequently played works from the whole of the 19th century: Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Daniel Harding conducted and the soloist was Leonidas Kavakos.

Daniel Harding
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The opening tutti of the Brahms offered an instant reminder of this orchestra's distinctive sound, its cushion of warm string tone aided by a layout with antiphonal violins, cellos in the centre and double basses (six for Brahms, five for Beethoven) lined up across the back of the platform. Harding obtained plenty of impetus in the quasi-symphonic opening. The solo entry was not perfect, but rarely is. In his book Conducting Brahms, Norman del Mar suggested the conductor stand back a little on the podium for the entry of the soloist, to enhance rapport between orchestra and soloist, as “the latter (is) often wayward in this opening exposé” and “will usually be hurrying”. Harding stood his ground and Kavakos hurried, his initial contributions rather frenetic and faster than the tempo set by Harding. That disparity was increasingly replaced by closer artistic collaboration, the soloist drawing rich sounds from his lower range, as the movement progressed towards a stirring close.

Leonidas Kavakos and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The Adagio opened with a loud oboe solo, far from the marked piano dolce, which the conductor made no gesture to ameliorate. At the height of this superb melody, Brahms even marks the accompanying winds down to pp, so that the peak of the oboe’s final phrase sounds through the texture. But a few such nuances went unobserved, and a sense of routine was the result (this was the fourth time they have played this programme recently). Kavakos played with some convincing phrasing though, if quite a lot of vibrato at times. The finale, as so often, went best, its high-stepping Hungarian manner delivered with aplomb by all concerned. Near the close there was very alert playing by soloist and the strings in the sprightly march version of the main theme. Kavakos’ encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s First Partita, was beautifully done, the most affecting solo playing of the evening.

Daniel Harding conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Beethoven’s Pastoral has many repetitious phrases, so leaves its interpreters a lot to do to keep it absorbing when symphonic drama is muted compared to other symphonies in the cycle. Here the first movement was swift despite its ma non troppo qualification, yet worked well enough with playing of felicitous detail. Harding’s conducting indicated the shape of line and phrase, within a clear pulse, if not – this being the Barbican Hall not the Concertgebouw – with sufficiently quiet playing. The second movement Scene by the Brook featured superb woodwind playing, especially from the oboe and flute. It was the clarinet and horns that caught the ear in the peasant’s merry making of the third movement, along with that famously bibulous bassoon. The storm broke with thunderous timpani rolls, the player’s hard sticks clattering like hailstones on a tin roof. The horn’s expert transition to the finale was the first of several idyllic moments in that sublime hymn of thanksgiving. 

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