For anyone lucky enough to have witnessed the last Barbican residency from Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the striking, thoughtful and vivid accounts of Brahms they gave here should not be a surprise.

In Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2, however, orchestra outdid soloist. Volodos, for all his volcanic energy, sometimes lacked the necessary tenderness and directness of expression – as in his first solo, where his excessive rubato continually obstructed the passage’s inexorable pull towards the explosive tutti entry. His risk taking when it came to dynamics, however, was thrilling and lead to his pianissimo being integrated deep within the orchestral texture. In second movement a snatched third beat meant the expansive rhythmic feel was lost – here he could have learnt something from the lower strings who imbued their lines with exactly the right fatness. Indeed, the orchestral were electric throughout, never more so than in the perfectly judged transition into trio.

Arcadi Volodos, © Ali Schafler / Sony Classical
Arcadi Volodos,
© Ali Schafler / Sony Classical


The Andante which followed was little short of revelatory. This was Volodos at his most unaffected and affecting; his first lonely solo was understated and all the more devastating for it whilst his hard-edged sound particularly suited the moments of knotted chromaticism. Orchestrally, if principal cellist Jürnjakob Timm’s saccharine, slightly unstable tone in the opening couldn’t quite match the gracious bloom of Susanne Wettemann’s oboe contributions, the care and intimacy with which his colleagues accompanied him more than made up for it. Drawing out the deeply sonorous horn pedals and exquisitely weighted chords in the lower winds Chailly expertly lead us to the movement’s extraordinarily still centre. Following fast on the Andante’s heels, the finale was joyous and driving, with scintillating violin pizzicati and agile piccolo and flute.

In the first movement of Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, occasionally the problems of over-thinking an interpretation became apparent as Chailly’s diligence led to details becoming over-exaggerated; the movement’s opening bass motif became a bulging anomaly rather than the germ from which the rest of the work sprung naturally whilst in the second subject the individual articulation marks were overdone at the expense of the broader sense of line. The breezy tempo, when twinned with Chailly’s impressive sense of large-scale form and harmonic direction, made for an exhilarating journey, though sometimes led to dissipation of that tension – so particular to Brahms – between pushing forward and holding back, pouring out and holding in. The coda, however, displayed all the aural clarity and transparency of texture we have come to expect from this crack-team.

More insights came in the symphony’s two middle movements, where Chailly emphasised the glowering brass interjections in the Adagio’s tempestuous sections more than usual, whilst in the third movement the contrast between the easy lilting melody of the opening and the vigorous scurrying figurations of the second part could hardly have been made more dynamic and persuasive.

In the closing movement the Gewandhaus exhibited excellent poise and control; muscular and boisterous in its festive syncopations but also precise and polished when needed. Chailly was correct to observe that the final return of second subject should be quieter than the music that proceeds it but, by overemphasising the point, instead of a full Brahmsian poco forte at this crucial moment of arrival we got a stingy, forced mezzo piano. This detail was quickly forgotten, though, as Chailly propelled the orchestra forwards into a coda of dizzying excitement.

An encore – the first of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances – reinforced just what a classy outfit the Gewandhaus are, with gutsy, impeccably phrased strings with robust, characterful winds to match. If not all of the ideas presented here convinced, this concert still thrilled and provoked in equal measure. Chailly’s detailed yet spontaneous approach to these masterpieces together with his warm, generous rapport with the players ensured this was a glorious and memorable evening of music making.