When leaders of their sections perform a concerto with their Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, it generally leads to an evening of excellence. Tonight was no different, as violin player Liviu Prunaru and cellist Gregor Horsch, joined forced for a superb performance of Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor. The two demonstrated how the orchestra’s sectional leaders are again up there with best soloists, proven in their mutual interplay, as well as their dynamic with their own orchestra. After the intermission, Andris Nelsons continued his Shostakovich cycle with the RCO in a very un-Russian, but still exhilarating performance of Symphony no. 4 in C minor that took hold of this listener long after the concert ended.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

The orchestra opened the Brahms Double Concerto with great fury, after which the two soloists took over in their solo parts. Prunaru and Horsch’s are so attuned to each other; their interplay seemed to evolve into one, as if they were both playing one instrument, where their violin and cello seemed an extension of each other’s timbre. Not only did the two perform their solo parts exquisitely, but also as members of their orchestra, they demonstrated appreciation for the orchestra, leading to both an intimate and joyous Allegro first movement.

In the second movement, the shift to D major provided the opportunity for delicate performance by the two soloists. While Prunaru and Horsch performed Brahms’ melodies with intimacy, the orchestra offered glowing warmth to contrast the fragility of this slow part. In this Andante, the players, perhaps because so familiar with each other, managed to load this part with such sensitivity, it seemed impossible not to be moved, as appeared evident with the silence and concentration from the audience.

Though part of a concerto, the last movement felt more like a part of a Brahms symphony. After the slow movement, the composer ups the ante in his manic Vivace non troppo. With its mischievous mood and imposing orchestral parts, both soloists and RCO’s sections could shine. Especially during the virtuoso violin passages, Prunaru impressed greatly, while Horsch offered encouraging wise smiles to his fellow musicians. As conductor, Nelsons offered tempo, but held back in other aspects, and appeared to be more like a cheerleader than coach, often permitting Prunaru and Horsch to lead the way. For some this held back conducting might appear lazy, but it seems more as if Nelsons respected the musicians enough, confident to let them perform without too much of his interference. The two leaders and members of the orchestra made great use of the long leash, providing a tremendously exciting finale.

After the break, the audience was brought to its knees during an intensely emotional, though uncharacteristic performance of Shostakovich’s three-part symphony. Kirill Kondrashin not only led the Russian première of this piece in 1961, but he also introduced the Dutch audiences in 1971 to this work, after which he became main Guest Conductor to the RCO, so there is a historical link to this piece. Now, Nelsons brought the symphony as the second Shostakovich of three he has planned for his guest stints this season. Generally appreciated, but sometimes criticized as being too distant in his conducting, Nelsons and his lack of strictness, provided the opportunity to hear the piece differently this time.

The performance lacked the shrilling, unnerving intensity often heard in Shostakovich when lead by Russian conductors. But this variation lacking in Russian character felt welcome, as the lack of unnerving intensity didn’t distract emotionally, allowing for a better focus on the complexities of the music. Especially in the first movement, the lack of edginess provided ample opportunity to listen and attempt to follow Shostakovich’s compositional acrobatics of the sonata form in the Allegro, poco moderato and later in the Presto. Both the woodwind section and the strings provided a warm glow to the music, often felt when the RCO performs Mahler. The Mahlerian tendency culminated in the short second movement. Before the percussion section closed this part with its castanets and snare drum, the other sections offered a playfulness while alternating the two themes. Perhaps it was Nelsons' minimal control that lead the RCO to sound so distinctly Mahlerian tonight.

Mahler’s late romantic mood never felt out of place and offered a nice contrast to the often unnerving Shostakovich. This continued to a lesser extent in the third movement. The tension building up in the Largo was not as powerful as could be. It was here that the laissez-faire attitude of Nelsons could have been helped with a stricter sense of slower tempo. But heading into the finale of the final movement Allegro, the piece turned in a great showcase for the strings, timpani, and woodwinds, buiding up great energy, and finally leading into a here slightly mysterious and enchanting pianissimo ending. After the last note was played, the the silence of the audience and the lack of immediate applause revealed the success of this performance. It will be interesting to see how Nelsons will conduct his first Mahler symphony with the RCO, but before that he might want to exert some more control over his musicians, so he can leave his own distinct mark on those pieces.