The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is regularly called one of the very best — sometimes the best — in the world. Its international tours tend to be akin to victory laps: a collaborative ensemble showing off a warm, rich sound, with singing strings and gleaming brass.
These features were on display at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night in the orchestra’s regular appearance — every two or three years — with Washington Performing Arts. But things were a little different this time round. The Concertgebouw has also toured with great conductors, notably the incomparable Mariss Jansons, its former chief conductor. The current U.S. tour was to have been with conductor Daniele Gatti, who took over in 2016. Gatti, however, was dismissed last summer in the wake of sexual harassment allegations first reported in The Washington Post, and the orchestra had to hastily find fill-ins. Daniel Harding, 43, a former conducting wunderkind encouraged as a teenager by some of Europe’s greatest composers, with a solid if not stellar career, was chosen to lead the tour — seen as a sign that he’s in the running for the now-vacant post.
Certainly Harding seemed eager. Although he broke his ankle in December and was limping noticeably on Wednesday (he had canceled performances for later this month with the San Francisco Symphony), he carried on. If only that eagerness had translated into a more exciting performance.
The Concertgebouw’s sound is always ravishing. When the full orchestra sat onstage in Richard Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben” (A hero’s life), you could bathe in it: the fullness of the tuttis and the dazzling solo turns. Liviu Prunaru, one of the orchestra’s two concertmasters, played the solo line (representing the hero’s lover) so gorgeously that I could have listened to him alone all night; the horns were beautiful, and the final brass chords gleamed.
That sound was showcased from the start. The opening piece, “Eiréné” by the French composer Guillaume Connesson, started with ethereal, wispy chords of harmonics and a melody in the high flute, but blossomed into an altogether more robust affair that called in the muscle of every section before unspooling in a pool of bells and a little inconclusive thought in the strings. It was nice to hear a composer responding to the instrument he had at his disposal. That said, these 10-minute contemporary interludes on many orchestras’ tours start to feel like ritual offerings, a token gesture toward embracing the new. I’ve certainly lambasted the Concertgebouw for playing overfamiliar fare, yet whatever the solutions to the problem of more forward-looking programming, these snapshots don’t feel like they’re cutting it.
Glorious sound notwithstanding, the evening didn’t have the magic of past Concertgebouw performances, and that, I think, lies with the conductor. Harding is clearly a solid musician, but I didn’t take anything particularly distinctive from his approach to either “Heldenleben” or the other canonical piece on the program, Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. The National Symphony Orchestra played the same concerto two weeks ago with Gianandrea Noseda, its music director, and Daniil Trifonov as soloist, and gave the Concertgebouw more than a run for its money. Harding went for a much larger, more heroic take on Beethoven than Noseda did; where Noseda favors a crisp light classicism, Harding presented old-school heroism, the opening phrases lighted with legato rather than the taut bounce of Noseda’s approach. Neither is inherently better or worse, but Harding’s reading, eliciting one big, full phrase after another, felt more generic.
Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, too, fell a bit flat. A cerebral and illuminating pianist, especially in contemporary repertoire, he’s not a player who dazzles you with pianism per se, instead reaching through the music to find expression and communication. But it turns out this piece could use a bit more dazzle; Aimard’s earnest reading ended up feeling overemphatic and heavy. Even in the ethereal second movement he seemed a little leaden, and not until a few of the more antic passages in the third movement did he find some of the lightness and twinkle to leaven the mixture.
If “Heldenleben” sounded better, it’s because that piece thrives on a full orchestra and lots of individual gestures, and contains its point of view within it — including the bitter chattering of music critics in the winds in the second movement, since the “hero” of this story is none other than the composer himself. But I didn’t come away feeling that Harding is a thrilling conductor — or that he had brought out the best in this wonderful orchestra.