Friday, June 19, 2020

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Kölner Philharmonie, Bischofsgartenstraße 1, 50667 Köln, Germany

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Concertgebouwplein 10, 1071 LN Amsterdam, Netherlands

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

These midsummer pandemic days are yielding generous livestreams of one kind or another. Performers from their living rooms, physically distanced orchestras, orchestras coming out of isolation, artists in empty halls, cancelled spectaculars replaced with intimate chamber excursions.

From this same-day harvest, first port of call was Cologne and a reduced scale but impeccably balanced and responsive WDR Symphony Orchestra under its Romanian music director Cristian Măcelaru. The first half of their programme featured a revelatory account of Mozart’s ‘little’ A-major Piano Concerto, K414, written in Vienna in 1782. Revelatory because the soloist, Igor Levit, saw it not as a modest nor schoolroom nor divertissement work (its usual fate) but, rather, as something seriously intentioned, with a subtext to be explored and polished. He transfigured the Andante into a muted hallowed prayer of elevated emotional intensity, in the first of Mozart’s two cadenzas anticipating an unexpectedly Beethovenian gran espressione quality. Beethoven’s teasingly brusque humour (the B-flat Concerto) wasn’t that far away, too, in the Finale.

Levit’s warmth and delicacy of touch, limpid staccatos and nightingale trills, risk-taking low dynamic levels, the ability to throw off a simple melody or pattern yet affect the soul, was compelling.  Măcelaru’s sensitivity, the buoyancy and rapport of his hand-picked ensemble (strings, oboes, horns), matched Levit’s vision. Seen through incense and stained glass, Bach’s chorale prelude, Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, in Busoni’s 1898 transcription, took the art of encore to a new level – miraculous control, registering and spiritual profundity in every phrase and roulade, church and organ, manuals and pedal-board,  suffusing modern concert room. “Come now, Saviour of the heathen.”

165 miles along the autobahn northwest, in Amsterdam, the RCO sampled intensity of another kind – Tchaikovsky’s 1888 Fifth Symphony, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Contrasting their colleagues in Vienna, back to normal seating, the RCO still follows distancing legislation in the old Concertgebouw. Their permitted spacing – cellos and basses to the right, violins massed to the left, trumpets and heavy brass raked high right, horns high left – compounded by a predominantly empty Hall (restricted to a small select audience in the balcony), adds up, from what the microphones convey, to a reinforced glow and clarity, a bigness of sound immediately epic and all enveloping yet free of congestion. I like it.

Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky is always good to meet. Not given to excessive body language, he doesn’t go in for histrionics or gratuitous sentimentality. He builds the musical structure on deep foundations, pacing events to speak, argue, conflict and harmonise in their own time, on their own terms. This was a performance of beautifully judged tempo and invigorating air, all the old tunes – destiny, the horn solo of the slow movement, the dark ways of the waltz, the cantering rhythms of the Finale – building to a magnificent velvet/brazen climax. No shortage of drama, but drama delivered by a vintage thespian, Tchaikovsky’s genius spread before us like a fresh canvas, cleansed of Soviet ghosts and fury, New World razzmatazz. Here was a great conductor and a great orchestra at full throttle, glorying in great music-making. Spine-tingling.