When it comes to summertime concerts, visitors to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw are often lucky, and this year is no different: the Robeco Zomerconcerten offer a diverse and exciting program that was kicked off by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky and Pekka Kuusisto with music by Elgar, Sibelius and Tchaikovksy. Pekka Kuusisto is one of the main attractions of this year’s Zomerconcerten, playing not only the opening concert, but also programs of Paganini, Finnish folk music and Vivaldi.

Pekka Kuusisto © Sonja Werner
Pekka Kuusisto
© Sonja Werner

Edward Elgar’s In the South is an orchestral work that wouldn’t be misplaced as a symphony movement; indeed, by the end of the performance I was wishing it was a symphony so I could enjoy it for longer. Sinaisky conducted the Radio Philharmonic without a conductor’s podium, but this certainly did not hinder his control over the orchestra. In the South is one of those pieces where you can really feel the story of its creation come to life – apparently Elgar was on holiday in the south of Italy with the intention of writing music inspired by the wonderful weather. As it was, the weather disappointing and the piece starts with music reflecting this, with an air of melancholy, perhaps reminiscent of daybreak. However, once the viola solo – played absolutely beautiful here – kicks in, the music becomes more upbeat, as the weather in Italy became more pleasant. The ending is full of light and energy with a triumphant feel – and Sinaisky managed to make the Radio Philharmonic sound like the rays of light were coming straight from their instruments, thereby bringing the Italian summer into the concert hall.

Apparently Pekka Kuusisto has performed Sibelius’ Violin Concerto over 200 times. What makes this fact even more astounding is that Kuusisto’s take on Sibelius makes the concerto sound as fresh as it ever did (and the applause after the first movement – a rarity – certainly confirmed that I was not the only audience member thinking this). In a world where almost all performing solo violinists are technically perfect and virtuosity is a given, someone like Kuusisto can come as a relief. His performance may not be note-perfect, but it need not be because above all it is full of life. He understands the concerto amazingly well; he understands what the music asks for, and he delivers it. His sound is raw, indubitably influenced by his interest in folk and improvisational music, but still beautiful and moving.

Kuusisto’s interaction with the orchestra is also something else: his body language shows that he does not play in front of the orchestra, but with them, a modesty that suits Sibelius’ concerto perfectly. This does not mean that Kuusisto wasn’t audible; on the contrary, the sound of his violin broke through everything the orchestra could throw at him – without ever becoming strained. The third movement was a particular highlight, with its characteristic opening melody played astonishingly by Kuusisto to the sheer energy the Radio Philharmonic brought, and it lead to a raucous standing ovation. Fortunately Kuusisto graced the stage for an encore: a Finnish folk song with a difficult name that had him singing as well as playing the violin. A true joy to listen to.

Vassily Sinaisky himself arranged the Sleeping Beauty Suite that closed the evening. Even though the performance was excellent, I have reservations with this particular suite. There were too many highlights; almost every part of music Sinaisky picked was high-energy, and there were more pompous endings that one could really want. The reason why the ballet music works so well as a whole is that, as with other Tchaikovksy pieces, there are not only these overpowering, bombastic moments, but also heartbreakingly beautiful slower movements, where the subtlety and nuance of Tchaikovksy’s music comes to the fore. In this suite, there was unfortunately not as much subtlety as I would have hoped. Of course there is something to be said that these may contain the highlights of Sleeping Beauty, but because of the lack of contrast between the pieces – not that their melodies sounded alike, but their energy was so similar – I believe some of its potential power has been lost. Both the first and second pieces of music played this evening exude a warmth, which was simply lacking in the Tchaikovksy.