Take one of the world’s greatest orchestras, a conductor at the height of his game, a top notch pianist, pieces from two of the greatest composers ever to live, and there’s just one difficulty. It’s all too easy for brilliant performances simply to be ‘churned out’.
And this problem certainly faced the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under the baton of Riccardo Chailly, as it performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. In the event, however, it only came to the fore in the first of the two pieces.
Originally performed by Mendelssohn when he was twenty-two, his First Piano Concerto may be sprightly and musically superlative, but it alludes to nothing deeper as far as drama or meaning is concerned.
So whilst in the first movement soloist, Saleem Abboud Ashkar, struck an intelligent balance between making the bold passages sufficiently striking and playing out the rippling effects in all their lyrical glory, what more could be said of the orchestra’s ‘response’ other than that it was perfectly measured?
The second movement, happily, fared better as a pared down orchestra allowed Ashkar to shine. His playing twinkled with vibrancy, delved beneath the surface of the lower notes, and then shimmered in the more languid passages. The final movement also prevailed, primarily because as Ashkar effectively brought his exuberant playing to a momentary standstill in the space of just two notes, it felt as if he was capturing Mendelssohn’s original intentions to the letter.
But it was in the Mahler, where there are so many emotions to explore, that the orchestra shone. Unfinished at his death, with this arrangement only completed by Deryck Cooke in the 1960s, the piece conveys Mahler’s sense of despair upon discovering that his wife, Alma, had been unfaithful. Whether Cooke appropriately captured what Mahler would have written is a perennial, albeit still valid, question, but on this occasion it was overshadowed by the orchestra’s beautiful performance.
With the playing characterised by tenderness and an exquisite attention to detail, we witnessed a heartfelt rendering of the first movement, in which the strings, despite the generally quiet tone, felt extremely unrelenting. Then, to its credit, the orchestra succeeded in imbuing into the lighter second movement an intriguing sense of disquiet.
Mahler’s sense of pain on learning of his wife’s infidelity was brought out in the third movement by some excellent trombone playing that genuinely rattled the listener. Then the fourth movement’s waltz in E minor was deeply affecting, as was the striking of the muffled bass drum that brought the movement to a close. Finally, the sheer extent to which the orchestra brought out the messages of hope and redemption in the final movement where Mahler reasserts his love for Alma, made this symphony feel complete, whether it was what Mahler himself would have produced or not.
7 September 2009 also witnessed a ceremonial signing to celebrate the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra becoming one of the Barbican’s International Associates. Its playing at the Albert Hall that night revealed just how much of an asset it will be to the venue.