This Friday evening broadcast, free to view on the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s own website, placed two old repertoire favourites and two old friends of the orchestra alongside each other without ever slipping into a feeling of complacency or routine. The orchestra’s own concertmaster, Liviu Prunaru, was soloist for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, while old favourite Myung-whun Chung directed with typical cool economy of gesture.

Myung-whun Chung
© Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

With a couple of desks of strings shorn from each section but occupying a similar area of the extended stage to that of a Mahler symphony (remember those?), the almost imperceptibly soft opening string line floated into hearing like a fine mist. Prunaru responded with similarly delicate, glassy stillness. Elsewhere there was a rich fullness to his sound, particularly effective in duetting with principal viola, and later with bassoon when emerging from an impassioned cadenza. The overall soft-touch approach was carried into the slow movement, where the woodwinds played their rising chords with utmost ensemble and blending, culminating in a profoundly moving passage at the movement’s close.

Liviu Prunaru, Myung-whun Chung and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

The finale fairly skipped along with insistent percussive vigour. Rarely have I heard this movement so eminently danceable. There was swaggering lilt in the orchestral passages, though always sensitive to the solo line, memorably so for Prunaru’s ethereal accompanying harmonics.

The approach to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was fresh, spirited and unfettered by any fusty old ideas of how the symphony ‘goes’. From the outset there was an emphasis on heavy rubato, Chung pulling the tempo around liberally but never forced. Though the wide stage spacing perhaps contributed to an occasional lapse in ensemble, his players responded with assurance in allowing each phrase to breathe. The pace and tension quickened later in the movement, giving a convincing sense of an unstoppable ascendancy to the last minutes, driven in no small part by some roaring timpani contributions.

Myung-whun Chung conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

The inner movements could scarcely have been more starkly contrasting. The second, unhurried and with utmost expressivity in the woodwinds and violas, was luxuriantly consoling. The third was delicate and precise in its busy string lines, though never lacking punch in the right places, driven onwards by the timpani engine room.

The finale was broad and bold in embracing the bitter tragedy of E minor once again. Only when the tempo slowed for some hauntingly elegant woodwind solos and the trombones’ entry did a glimmer of warmth emerge. Having sat still for forty minutes, the trombone chorale was as perfectly blended as could be wished for. Chung pushed the accelerator from there to the finish line. The coda was the pinnacle of bleakness, rolling inexorably towards tragedy.

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's live video stream