Monument to a master

RBSO's final concert of 2019 serves as a tribute to Brahms

Monumental Brahms. RBSO Foundation

In the presence of their inspirational and extremely supportive Royal Patron, Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra gave the final concert of their hugely successful 2019 season earlier this month in the Thailand Cultural Centre, featuring two of Johannes Brahms' mightiest orchestral creations. The first half of "Monumental Brahms" consisted of the Double Concerto For Violin And Cello In A Minor Op.102, a grandiose work of such weight that an overture wasn't required in order to balance the imposing Symphony No.4 In E Minor Op.98 in the second half, in which the RBSO and music director Michel Tilkin gave a magnificent rendition of the composer's concluding symphonic statement.

The double concerto was in fact the last large scale orchestral work that Brahms wrote, and absolutely demands two virtuosos who have the capability to project themselves -- individually and together -- beyond their usual soloistic demeanour. Not just in terms of sheer volume, but equally in terms of charismatic, impassioned stage presence, this is one of the most demanding and difficult concertos to pull off successfully. Many legendary partnerships have taken on the challenge since seasoned maestros Joseph Joachim and Robert Hausmann premiered the masterpiece in 1887, and it is indeed a close, equal partnership, which is of crucial importance, not to mention an easy rapport with the conductor.

The relatively young pairing of Singaporean violinist Ning Kam and German cellist Judith Ermert for this concert meant that youthful passion, energy and exuberance could be more or less relied upon, but would they be able to fill the cavernous Thailand Cultural Centre with their powers of projection? Performing in the traditional "shoebox" style auditorium is one thing, but the 2,000 capacity TCC is full of angled corners as a result of its modern design. Thankfully, both Kam and Ermert rose to this challenge admirably, while Tilkin made absolutely sure that the large orchestra didn't ever drown out the soloists when accompanying. Based on the Baroque period concerto grosso format of alternating concertino and ripieno, the work opens with the latter on full throttle, while the cello's first recitative-like exploration of the fingerboard is left entirely on its own. Ermert's modern instrument, made in Bremen by Andrew Finnigan and Pia Klaembt, exuded a lush and warm tone in the extremely difficult lower register multiple stopping, before the violin then sailed effortlessly above, angelic and serene in nature. Kam is most fortunate to perform on a precious, exquisite Nicolò Amati instrument, made in 1668, on generous loan from the Rin Collection, Singapore.

Sweet in tone and pure in sound, Amati violins are nevertheless generally regarded to be quieter than those by other Cremonese masters, but Kam's pinpoint intonation drew the ears magnetically towards her gorgeous playing, not to mention her phenomenal dexterity and technique.

After the intermission the RBSO rounded off what has been a notable decade in its evolution with a powerful and committed reading of one of the repertoire's very finest warhorses. The last concert that Brahms himself witnessed, on March 7, 1897, in fact featured what is arguably his crowning achievement, this final symphony. Hans Richter conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in the world's greatest "shoebox" concert hall, the Musikverein, and the event was an utter triumph for everyone. So much so that the celebrated composer had to stand after every movement to receive and bathe in the enthusiastic applause.

The RBSO has recently benefited, for the first time in its almost four decade history, from the rare and privileged experience of being joined for two concerts by three members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Central to that ensemble's legendary sound is the approach of not playing too loud individually, but rather always blending together sympathetically, so as to create a unified, homogenous texture that will then project naturally of its own accord. To constantly maintain such levels of technical and musical excellence is another aspect altogether, of course, but the RBSO was certainly in fine fettle during its own interpretation of Symphony No.4 In E Minor.

The two-note yearning gestures for violins that open the piece already exhibited a lovely tonal sheen, while the dense inner writing for violas and lower strings provided a warm bed of harmonic support. This pleasing balance was continued throughout the allegro non troppo. The Neapolitan-tinged andante moderato then contrasted effectively with some delicate pizzicato for tutti strings, while all departments did a remarkably good job of negotiating the fiendish writing in the scherzo, taken by Tilkin at a truly breakneck tempo. And so to the 34 variations of the awe-inspiring passacaglia, a structure so taut for the most part that emotions are ratcheted up to an almost unbearable degree. But then comes the central flute solo, so wistful and plaintive, played beautifully on this occasion by principal flautist Teerat Ketmee. Each subsequent variation then built up the tension towards the most emphatic of final cadences.