Ten years after he moved on from his tenure as chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden returned to his old workplace to conduct a concert of two masterpieces. One of the world’s busiest conductor (that is, in pre-Covid times), van Zweden holds or recently held the title of music director on three continents. His experience is vast, his influence on musical directions, planning and other matters in his orchestras extensive. The flagship orchestra of the Flemish community received him with obvious pleasure, conveyed in a visible way by two huge banners hanging behind the stage, announcing his name and their association and, on a human and more appealing level, with evident enthusiasm, noticeable both in the players’ demeanour and their performance.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra
© Vincent Callot

Their esteemed guest soloist was the American Nicholas Angelich, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, arriving on stage in mask and elbow-greeting the concertmaster. On the spacious stage of the Queen Elisabeth Hall (opened only a few years ago), all musicians used their individual music stands, although they played without masks.

Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto is actually his first (only published after the later ‘First’ concerto), an important work that was performed at Beethoven’s public debut as a pianist on the Viennese concert circuit. The still teenage composer wrote it for himself, confidently showcasing his musical invention and cramming it with technical difficulties. None of these caused the slightest difficulties for Angelich, who performed the solo part with impeccable technique. His strong fingers articulated clearly defined phrases in a recording-ready performance. In the first section of the opening movement, he played the almost alarmingly brave change of key from F major to D flat major with great sensitivity, as if abruptly stopping on the road to admire a beautiful flower. In his cadenza at the end of the slow movement, he took the composer’s instruction senza sordino seriously and lifted the pedal, shrouding the sound of the notes of several bars with a veil of rich overtones, a highly unusual effect at the end of the 18th century. In the finale, the wild syncopations and accents on the ‘wrong’ part of the bar were energetically emphasised in his playing.

Nicholas Angelich, Jaap van Zweden and the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra
© Vincent Callot

In lieu of an interval, a few pre-recorded testimonies by orchestral players and Angelich (partly in Flemish and partly in English) offered some background to the streamed performance. The concert continued with Tchaikovsky’s always popular Symphony no. 5 in E minor. From the beginning, it was clear that van Zweden’s musical interest lay not nostalgically stuck in past glories (a common interpretation of the gloomy clarinet solo accompanied by low strings); and immediately evident was a sense of moving ahead. At the beginning of the second movement, he balanced the solemn darkness of the lower strings well and his carefully chosen tempi never allowed the music to be dragged into self-pity.

Van Zweden’s command over both the score and the orchestra was truly impressive. He wisely allowed the melodies to follow their natural course and the orchestra clearly felt secure under such confident guidance. His gestures never left the slightest doubt as to where the next beat should be and how it should be phrased. This supreme control, however, occasionally had a reverse effect, as seldom did a spontaneous musical gesture escape from under his guiding attention. The galvanising energies of Tchaikovsky’s music were noticeable, yes, but at times they were held excessively in control and thus were restricted from roaring with their mighty force.

This performance was reviewed from the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra video stream