I sat down to hear the last concert of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s Brahms cycle under Riccardo Chailly at the Barbican with high hopes. Having heard the hype, it seemed that the restrained autumnal shades of the Violin Concerto in D major (with superstar Leonidas Kavakos) and the sheer compositional majesty of the Symphony no. 4 in E minor had the potential to be the high points of an already much-vaunted cycle. Chailly’s “radical return” to Brahms, as Decca are calling it, has been the subject of much scrutiny. An insistence on cutting through years of performance tradition to find an interpretation that Brahms himself might have understood – according to Chailly – has more than a whiff of the “authentic” performance movement about it, and it was along these lines that the Italian’s interpretations ran. With invariably brisk tempos and highly marked articulation, it was the control of a Norrington that Chailly exercised over his orchestra, and despite the audience’s cheers, I’m not sure it always worked, however impressive a display of Regiemusik it may have been.

It was around halfway through the last movement of the violin concerto that I realised why it was I found myself unmoved: this was like sitting down in a concert hall to hear a recording, rather than a live performance, of this most mature and pensive of Brahms’ masterworks. With the Gewandhaus in terrific form, dynamic shifts happened in a heartbeat, all the notes were clearly present, and ensemble was faultless; all this, though, at the cost of that glorious spontaneity that makes live performance undeniably the best way to hear this music. Chailly’s orchestra sounded restrained, caged, the opening imperial and triumphalist with harsh brass attack rather than warm and Romantic.

This was craggy Brahms, hard-edged and aggressive, none of the ingratiating warmth of a Karajan or a Rattle, and Kavakos’ contribution was in the same vein. Emphasising virtuosity before lyricism, this was very impressive playing when the solo part was difficult, but it was in the slower, melodic utterances, particularly in the first movement, that Kavakos seemed to struggle. With frequent intonation lapses and little expressive nuance, it was only in the finale’s Mephistophelian gypsy fiddling that he found some fire. With him, the orchestra, who sounded rather lifeless accompanying came alive for the last movement.

The Gewandhaus’ principal winds, leading a genuinely stunning section, easily the envy of orchestras the world over, saved the orchestral performance in the slow movement. Principal oboe Domenico Orlando provided a solo of unforgettable beauty above a texture so clear as to remind one of chamber music, and the other principals met his standard. I must credit Chailly’s approach for the magic of this moment; I simply wished such arresting warmth could have been the rule for the performance rather than the exception.

Away from the responsibility of accompaniment, the Fourth Symphony demonstrated most clearly the relationship of Chailly’s “radical” Brahms to the historically-informed performance movement. The first movement was taken at a tempo rivalled only by Norrington or Gardiner and with crisp articulation to match. However, from the first note it was apparent that there were inconsistencies in Chailly’s reading.

Historically-informed tempos cannot really work without an extreme reading or old instruments; modern instrumental textures and technique are not conducive to the very clear, quicksilver textures Chailly wanted, and balance issues plagued the first movement, with the melody frequently inaudible. With harsh articulation and plenty of encouragement from the conductor, the brass frequently dominated the orchestra, as modern trumpets in particular are wont to do. The masterful compositional technique praised by Chailly was lost under a sea of detail more akin to Berlioz than Brahms, and some unfortunate errors from the horn section did not help matters, though the woodwind were once again impeccable.

Not only were tempos quick, but they were also totally uncompromising, and several magical moments were passed over. Perhaps the most egregious moment for me was the trombone chorale in the finale, where Chailly clearly prioritised the clarity of the repeating bass figure that characterises the chaconne – derived from Bach – over its ingenious manipulation as the movement’s key. Such a performance, which overdetermines the historical, is not to my taste, but it was impossible to doubt Chailly’s commitment to his vision of Brahms. Clear-cut but with huge, rich, basses and an ear for the orchestra, this was Brahms as both grounded in the orchestra of Schumann and the traditional school of Bachian counterpoint but also looking forward to the tonal precision of Schoenberg’s rarefied “tone-colour melody”, as Chailly has noted in discussion on his interpretation. The audience, I’ll admit, loved it – a rapturous reception was only amplified by a Hungarian Dance for an encore – but despite attempting to lose myself in this hard-edged, proto-Modernist Brahms, I found myself once again unmoved.