Louder. Faster. Higher: with superior instruments, highly-refined technique and an audience avid for pyrotechnics, nineteenth-century composers were liable to be sucked into an arms race of virtuosity when writing concertos. Brahms certainly did his best. Apparently Wieniawski thought it was unplayable. Joachim, the dedicatee, coped.
So did Maxim Vengerov last night. More than coped. Owned it. But, interestingly, the most ear-catching moments for me were not the flawless cascades of notes, the thrilling sprays of double stopping, but the way he found the shape and sense of the melodies. Like in the final movement, where he tuned into his inner gypsy, snatching a microsecond of air at the top of the phrase, and inspiring the orchestra to imitate him. Or riffing on a mystery where-was-that-from phrase in his first movement cadenza. Or graciously picking up the melody offered, for consideration, by the oboe in the second movement. Making the unplayable make sense.
The Brahms was paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5; a real wham bam of a season opener. Except that it was more like w-whamba, wham, baba bam. No, that’s being cruel. But, after a month’s holiday, the orchestra did sound like it had, well, been on holiday. Nothing wrong with individual lines: the strings were sweet and lush, the wind soloists immaculate and the trombones rasped tunefully… But put it all together and things got fuzzy at times. Robertson’s tempi – sometimes daring, but not unreasonable – often took a while to take. And about those trombones. I like a trombone as much as the next person, but their tuneful rasp just felt like it was dominating the orchestral texture.
Don’t get me wrong. This was a great concert by a great orchestra. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But in the age of louder, faster, higher we are promised earth-shattering spectacularity, night after night and, honestly, last night it wasn’t quite there.
Which is great, because I know I have much more to look forward to in their 2017 program.