Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Leipzig Gewandhaus/Chailly @ Barbican Hall, London

2 December 2010

We are going to see a lot more of the Leipzig Gewandhaus at the Barbican in the next year, with a Beethoven symphony cycle planned for the 2011 autumn season. If this orchestral spectacular is anything to go by, that series of concerts needs to be block booked in the diary without further delay.

Under the leadership of Riccardo Chailly they have made great strides since 2005, to the point where they can legitimately be classed as one of the best orchestras in the world. This concert gave them the ideal opportunity to flex their musical muscles.

The unusual programming and structure mattered not, for we began with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto that refreshed a familiar work with keen musicality. Key to this was the playing of Arcadi Volodos, a pianist who not only listens to the orchestra but looks directly at the players while playing, an approach that clearly unites the two forces. A keenly interpreted first movement fought shy of Romantic bombast, instead bringing some of Tchaikovsky’s playfulness to the fore, with woodwind and brass particularly responsive to Chailly’s tempo and expression. The slow movement, beautifully shaded, featured winning solos from flute and cello, while the interplay of the finale was joyously uninhibited.

With the first piano concerto providing an uplifting opening, the storm clouds gathered for an electrifying performance of Francesca da Rimini, revealing Tchaikovsky’s dark side. Chailly threw himself energetically into an interpretation full of fire and brimstone, with some of the brass interjections resembling forked lightning, percussion heavy on the uptake too. When the passionate string theme broke out, however, it carried all before it to a thunderous finish.

Better still was Pines of Rome, Respighi’s often overlooked spectacular. Whilst undoubtedly a crowd pleaser in its sumptuous orchestration, this is a piece of uncannily vivid description, a ‘tone poem’ in every sense as it evokes the atmosphere of the Italian capital. Whether it be dappled side streets or busy, festive roadways, the score teems with activity and flourishes of colour.

A special mention should be made for cor anglais player Gundel Jannemann-Fischer and clarinettist Andreas Lennert, whose solo in Pines of the Janiculum was exquisite. Chailly, meanwhile, wrung every last ounce from his strings, the violins in particular working as if their lives depended on it.

The solemnity of the catacomb was profoundly moving, working carefully from leaden lower strings to its full blooded orchestral climax. Just as affecting was the interjection of the nightingale at the end of the Pines of the Janiculum, played on a gramophone at the work’s premiere in 1924 and still something of a radical move even now.

This was one of many moments where Chailly and his wonderful orchestra succeeded in making the notes jump from the page, and the ending, a deafening wall of B flat major, surely constitutes some of the loudest orchestral music the Barbican has ever heard.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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