Both Sir Antonio Pappano and Igor Levit were signed up to the key signature of C in this online concert given by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: a partnership between podium and keyboard in a C minor concerto and with the conductor alone commanding attention in the following C major symphony.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© screenshot

Sometimes reviewers struggle to find fault. And there are reasons for that. It helps when you are afforded repeated glimpses of one of Europe’s most beautiful concert halls, the dark-red upholstery and carpeting already suggesting opulence, the wall-lights glistening like rows of tiaras. It helps too when none of the metres and metres of cabling and intrusively positioned microphones plus itinerant camera-operators are visible as in other live streams. But all of this would count for nothing were it not for the quality of the RCO, together with its soloist and conductor on this occasion.

Even with a modestly-sized string section grounded on three double basses for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (boosted to five for Schumann’s Second Symphony), there was a fullness and richness to the sound, with committed playing right through to the back desks. Above all, the superlative wind players and Pappano’s careful balancing of the inner voices yielded a most satisfying demonstration of musicianship at every level.

Igor Levit
© screenshot

It also helps when soloist and orchestra are in complete accord with each other. This Beethoven was big, bold and brave: the opening RCO statement was powerful, the slightly astringent quality of the wind counterpoint cutting through the buzzing strings. Levit responded in kind with an extraordinary range of sonority, the dynamic and tempo contrasts enhancing the inner life in his playing. The way he lingered over individual notes and pandiculated the lyrical scope of individual phrases gave this opening movement a frequently improvisatory quality. Not the least of the many felicities was the way he cast his fine trills in the cadenza like raindrops tapping against the windowpane.

There are many pianists who can do the heroics in the opening Allegro but who make heavy weather of the aria-like Largo that follows. At almost eleven minutes this was at times daringly slow, yet Levit sustained interest throughout, soloist and orchestra gently breathing in and out together. In the second subject there was a rare sense of wistfulness, echoed by perfectly matched sighs from the strings, eliciting a smile of approval from Levit. Later, the rippling keyboard arpeggios set against the earthiness of the bassoon solo and purling flute helped to illuminate Czerny’s comment that the Largo “must sound like a holy, distant and celestial Harmony”.

Sir Antonio Pappano
© screenshot

It was clear from the start of Schumann’s Second Symphony that Pappano had fully embraced the composer’s own comment that this is “music of light and shade, sunshine and shadow”. Once past the opening Sostenuto assai with its mirroring of Bachian chorales, he had the strings exercising their collective muscle, the energy firing through the ranks until it culminated in the heady euphoria of the coda. Wisely, he chose a steady tempo for the Scherzo, which enabled the Mendelssohnian quality of the writing to make its mark, the chattering wind offering counterpoint to the warm-toned strings.

There was no unnecessary mawkishness in the Adagio either, where Pappano shaped the long string lines with a sure hand, contrasted with superlative contributions from the oboe of Alexei Ogrintchouk and Emily Beynon’s flute (though the entire woodwind section had a rare purity and blend). Could Pappano have made just a little more of the dramatic role for the timpani to crown the concluding exuberance of the Finale? Perhaps. But that would amount to no more than nit-picking.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream