By opening this musical season with a sometimes-shrill but generally excellent Brahms Violin Concerto in D major and moving renditions of Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Leonidas Kavakos and Mariss Jansons set the tone for what promises be an exhilarating Residency at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and a great – though sadly last – season for Chief Conductor Jansons. This evening, Kavakos opened his stay with Brahms. His technical mastery and musical sensitivity, in both the dramatic and the warm, make his current interpretation one not to be missed. As for the two vastly different tone poems after the break, let’s just say that Strauss and Jansons never disappoint.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve
With a noticeably large arrangement for Brahms, Jansons joyfully led the RCO through the opening of the concerto. After the timpani echoed the introductory beats from Beethoven’s own Violin Concerto in D major, Kavakos embraced the Allegro non troppo, exhibiting technical wizardry while maintaining his trademark modesty; there was a complete lack of theatricality. He continuously offered a shimmering brilliance to Brahms’ melodies, as well as to Joseph Joachim’s elegantly fitting cadenza, which Kavakos performed for an utterly silenced Concertgebouw. It was in this cadenza that the soloist outshone Jansons and his army. The music was simply stunning.

Kavakos is clearly a solo virtuoso, but it is his modesty that makes him a great fit for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with its habit of treating all sections and their members as equals. For most of the performance, it felt like he was part of the orchestra, as if he might have been a first violinist. This embedding of Kavakos as part of the RCO played out ideally during the back-and-forth between him and the strings, resulting in a resounding depth for Brahms’ melodies. Their interplay demonstrated mutual reverence. Another highlight occurred between Kavakos and Alexei Ogrintchouk, the first oboist, when they performed their solo parts in the Adagio: at first separate, but eventually playing off each other. The two musicians generated a genuine warmth and tenderness for Brahms’s pastoral mood in the second movement. Not only does Ogrintchouk possess an enormous set of lungs, his musical sensitivity ranges from comforting warmth to shrilling confrontation – not unlike Kavakos himself. The expectations are high for his solo endeavour in the Strauss Oboe concerto in D major later this autumn. After Kavakos and Jansons completed the Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace with an even-tempered excitement, Kavakos, in a surprising but kind gesture, insisted on giving his bouquet of Dutch flowers to Ogrintchouk. The generous Greek then came back and closed his performance with a striking Bach encore.

After the intermission, Mariss Jansons delighted the audiences with a traditional performance of two tone poems by Richard Strauss. Both pieces are played often by the RCO; Tod und Verklärung in particular is a favourite of Maestro Jansons, who often performs it at the Concertgebouw and on tour. Though Strauss wrote both pieces during his youth, the works elicit two starkly different reactions from the listener. Where Tod und Verklärung evokes a melancholic, often tense, mood in which the program follows a sick man losing his fight against death, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche offers joy, cheeky mischief and sometimes laughs. Under Jansons’ enthusiasm, both pieces served their purpose. In Tod und Verklärung, he sustained enormous tension during the Largo, only to release it effectively during the Allegro molto agitato. The Meno mosso provided a tapestry for the orchestra to display its colours, triggering goosebumps and sending shivers down my spine. In the Moderato, the music released the audience from its grip, while Jansons guided the orchestra through a surprisingly subtle finale.

Though last infused with a lazy exuberance by Andris Nelsons, Jansons’ pupil, this Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche was more restrained, less giddy, but all the more brilliant. The violin solo offered romance. The clarinet grinned, smiling with mischief. And as if in a jazz band, one could almost imagine that the musicians jammed with each other, letting snippets of melody jump around the orchestra.