While the crowd at the Concertgebouw was all abuzz about Daniele Gatti’s appointment as the next Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the orchestra had a date with Northern Europe. Michael Schønwandt led the orchestra with purpose, but a lack of chemistry left the performance wanting. A familiar face in Holland, Schønwandt was the Principal Conductor of the Dutch Radio Chamber Philharmonic and this wasn’t the first time he has led the RCO. Soloist Alexander Garvryluk’s excellence inadvertently highlighted the conductor’s clearly well intended, though ultimately less than satisfying, effort. Tonight’s concert consisted of Northern European composers. The expectations for Gavrylyuk were justifiably epic based on his previews collaborations and recitals, so it was unfair for Schønwandt to be cast in his brilliant shadow.

Alexander Gavrylyuk © Mika Bovan
Alexander Gavrylyuk
© Mika Bovan

The evening commenced with Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter, a tone poem that the composer set to a part from the Finnish epic Kalevala. In it, a god – Väinämöinen – experiences the unrequited love from the moon god’s daughter. In the orchestral layout, the harp was placed amongst the violins, while the timpani stood to the side and the brass towered over the orchestra. All this lead to some interesting effects. The harp and strings together provided engrossing weight. With its crisp and rich sound, the brass section beaming from atop the orchestra blasted Sibelius’ themes through the Concertgebouw. Unfortunately the guidance of Schønwandt felt loose and fragmented. His gesticulations and measure were both wildly enthusiastic and oddly disjointed. Sibelius’ tension in the strings was inconsistently sustained. A highlight occurred when the woodwind section and later the strings produced the shrilling motif similar to that which Bernard Hermann used in his score to Hitchcock’s Psycho.

This unfortunate dynamic became even more evident when Gavrylyuk performed his part in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. The Ukrainian’s sensitivity and unaffected joy contributed to his phenomenal execution. In the Moderato he impressed in the many virtuoso passages, avoiding the pitfalls leading often to cinematic melodrama that can result from Rachmaninov’s melancholy. His sensitivity was felt during the duet with the oboe, and later too during the romancing of the clarinet in the Adagio sostenuto. His subtle use of the pedal heightened the finesse of Rachmaninov’s romance. In the final movement Allegro scherzando the horns offered rich playing. Gavrylyuk's sheer delight behind the piano was a joy to behold. As an encore, he soothed his audience with an affectionate rendition Schumann’s Kinderszenen.

While the individual orchestral sections were all excellent, cohesion was missing from the orchestra. Each section seemed to be individually involved when playing off Gavrylyuk, but together they sounded oddly fragmented. The strings, however beautiful, seemed a separate ensemble altogether. 

Schønwandt led a decent performance of Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4, “The Inextinguishable”.  Nielsen himself conducted the RCO première of this symphony in 1920. Schønwandt has been an ambassador for Nielsen’s work, recording all his symphonies and concertos. This and the fact that all four movements are played without interruption, possibly helped minimize the fragmentary tendencies from earlier in the evening. The Allegro opened with upbeat energy, coarsely changing gears from Rachmaninov’s romantic concerto. The second movement begins with a dainty melody in a pastoral setting from which lively explosions evolve. The third movement, with its sonorous percussion and thrilling strings, finally evoked thoughts of the vast iciness of the endless Scandinavian landscape. While sustaining this chilling tension from a dedicated RCO, Schønwandt moved into the final movement: the timpani’s crescendi threateningly pulsated underneath the rhythms of the other sections, culminating in Nielsen's whirlwind finale. In the end, Schønwandt offered a stimulating Inextinguishable without reaching the quality of Gavrylyuk's solowork in Rachmaninov.