An accordion, guitar and several saxophones exotically expanded the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s colourful palette tonight in works rarely performed. After an injured shoulder last December, Andris Nelsons returned to his Shostakovich cycle with an easy-going Sixth Symphony and followed it with an exhilaratingly fulfilling Suite for Variety Orchestra; cheer, melancholy, and romance infused with Nelsons' youthful enthusiasm followed. Clever programming combined this Shostakovich with Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major by Artist in Residence Jean-Yves Thibaudet, joined by the RCO for a swinging encore.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet © Kasskara | Decca.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Kasskara | Decca.
Nelsons opened up the first movement, layering the cellos, violins, and basses. They didn’t roar, but quietly throbbed, creating a brooding atmosphere. The first movement belonged to Emily Beynon and her sorority of flautists, leading the audience through Shostakovich’s eerie opening Largo. Her symbiotic play with Julie Moulin tempered the composer's most shrill passages, while the controlled rasping in the high register of the piccolo produced thrilling accents. In the second movement the clarinet opened, singing happily under a shower of pizzicato strings. Brass bellowed, percussion pulsated, and the flautists continued their enchantment. Nelsons increased his control, gaining more tension.

As the three part symphony intensified with each movement, Nelsons kept stricter measure. When Nelsons dramatically increased the tempo for the Presto, an encouraging momentum took over. 

Right before the programme, Nelsons switched the order of the performance, which made sense as now a progression from darkness to light developed. Continuing with Shostakovich-Lite, Nelson followed with five movements from the Suite for Variety Orchestra. With contagious enthusiasm, Nelsons launched into the opening “March”. Brass initiated the freewheeling circus mood that continued with percussion and wind instruments adding cheer. In the “Lyric Waltz” Bart Leliveld’s accordion oozed tearful melancholy, while Paul van Utrecht contributed on guitar to the ever-changing rhythms. With their peculiar colours, these two guests vitalized the texture in the orchestral tapestry.

With basses repeating the frenzied motif in “Dance 1”, the swooning melody from the strings greeted the exciting rhythms that at times seemed to be heated by a Spanish temperament. Quite slowly, Nelsons began “Waltz 2”, famously used by Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut. His tempo increased creating a voluptuous dance. The “Finale” brought back the vaudeville mood of the opening. Brass and percussion continued the parade, and now even the xylophone clattered along rhythmically. The musicians clearly enjoyed themselves in this upbeat Shostakovich, and audience reacted with explosive applause.

Opening the Allegro of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, the timpani opened with bombast, followed by brass adding a dose of optimism. Thibaudet led the audience into a dreamy world. With delicacy, his gentle playing alternated with brief, jazzy accelerations. Thibaudet’s easy-going verve played well against the clapping of the wood whip.

In the second movement Adagio, the music slows down significantly. A languid horn solo sets a jazzy mood, the clarinet adding brooding colour. After the captivating solo passages on the piano, the RCO seemed reinvigorated, perhaps inspired by Thibaudet’s play. Now Gershwin sounded sharper, more lucid, something that was lacking in the first movement. This momentum carried through in the Allegro agitato. A great surge took over and Shostakovich’s militancy resonated here. Intensely focused on his rapid phrasing, Thibaudet raced through Gershwin’s electrifying solo writing, leading to the epic romance of the radiant finale.

The RCO did not sound completely at ease in Gershwin, but they evidently played with much joy, particularly in the sensational encore of Gershwin’s Variations on “I Got Rhythm”