Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly @ Barbican Hall, London

1 January 2009


In Leipzig, the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s New Year Eve galas are a hallowed tradition. This year the entire orchestra, chorus and soloists flew into London to repeat the celebration on New Year’s Day with a rousing concert which was a brilliant way to start 2009.

The rich Gewandhaus sound is legendary, but these days it’s been reinvigorated. This orchestra is technically superb, but what impressed most was the way in which it responded to the sweep of Beethoven’s vision. The 9th Symphony is so familiar that it’s quite an achievement to make it sound as audacious as this.

This symphony was labelled “shocking new music” because of its use of voices in the last movement. This music isn’t abstract but carries a powerful message. “Let thy magic bring together all whom earth-born laws divide; all mankind shall be brothers”. It was so important to Beethoven that he referenced the themes from the choral conclusion throughout the symphony. It’s hard to deny the power of Schiller’s Ode to Joy as it’s as relevant today as it was in 1823.

By highlighting the individual instruments that introduce the snippets of song, Riccardo Chailly shows how Beethoven builds up from solo to tutti. It’s a significant insight, given the composer’s opposition to political tyranny. Chailly positions the trumpets on their own, above the rest of the orchestra, even above the timpani allowing them to ring out loud and clear above the tumult. Traditionally, trumpets herald change, so showcasing them in this way reinforces Beethoven’s passionate intent.

Each small group of instruments has its own distinctive character, which Beethoven emphasises. Chailly gives due attention to details like the flute melody and the double bass ensemble, as though they were “voices” like the singers. Even in the final movement, the trombones are clearly defined, not overwhelmed, by the joyous mass of sound, reminding us of when they had appeared, on their own, earlier.

Chailly had assembled a formidable line-up of soloists with the baritone, Hanno Müller-Brachmann making a particularly good impression. He is one of the rising stars of his generation, as his firm, assertive performance demonstrated. Soprano Lili Paasikivi was also impressive; her lustrous tone belied the fact that the group had been working and travelling non stop for 48 hours.

It must have been quite an undertaking to bring the entire Gewandhaus Choir and MDR Radio Chor Leipzig over from Germany, but the result was worthwhile. We hear a lot of excellent choral singing in London, but seldom as cohesive and sharp as this. This being a New Year Day festivity, it brought out mink coat wearers in abundance, it was cold between car park and cloakroom, but musically it was an excellent occasion, as well. Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra are a formidable combination, bringing out the best in each other.


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