Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Concert Of The Season

On Thursday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Riccardo Chailly lead the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

We last heard the Gewandhaus under Chailly in the late summer of 2007, when we attended a Gewandhaus concert in London at The Royal Albert Hall.

The Gewandhaus had offered splendid playing and splendid musicianship in its 2007 Proms appearance, yet the orchestra, if anything, was even more impressive Thursday night.

The acoustics of Symphony Hall are much finer than the troublesome acoustics of The Royal Albert Hall, and the excellent Boston acoustics allowed listeners fully to appreciate the special sound of the Gewandhaus, a miracle of Old World blend and urbanity.

The Gewandhaus strings have both presence and transparency. The timbres of the winds are dark, rustic and very Central European. The horns offer beautifully rounded, mellow, warm sound. The brass instrumentalists play with a clean, bright but tempered sound, very polished but also very understated. No one section overpowers another; orchestral balances are as meticulous as they are in Cleveland.

Leipzig has another characteristic it shares with Cleveland: the musicians play as one. At a Gewandhaus concert, the listener has the impression that the musicians share a common schooling, a common ethos, and a deep, age-old, shared culture. The musicians breathe together, phrase together, think together. There is uniformity without rigidity, homogeneity without blandness.

The Gewandhaus is a magnificent orchestra.

Thursday night’s concert was devoted to Beethoven: the Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) and the Symphony No. 7.

The pianist, Louis Lortie, was a replacement soloist, Nelson Freire having withdrawn from the Gewandhaus American tour due to indisposition. Lortie is not a Beethoven pianist, and his performance was unsatisfactory: too low-key, too tidy, too diffident, too lacking in personality to bring Beethoven’s most demanding concerto to life. Probity, weight, grandeur—and fire—were absent in Lortie’s small-scale performance. Passages that should have provided high relief turned into mere filigree: the opening cadenza had no thrill; the great climaxes of the Allegro were underpowered; the eruption of the great theme at the beginning of the Rondo was of no moment. Lortie was at his best in the Adagio, where his playing was suitably reflective and very Classically poised, if a bit chilly.

The many bravura demands of the “Emperor” imposed a severe strain upon Lortie’s basic technique: there was a lot of suspect passagework, and Lortie was never able, in passages demanding volume and power, to draw a rich and pleasing sound from his instrument. In terms of pure pianism, Lortie was impressive not at all.

In the concerto, Chailly was caught between a rock and a hard place. Whenever he tried to bring the accompaniment to life, his intensity overpowered the soloist, rendering Lortie’s playing more impersonal and unsatisfactory than ever. Whenever Chailly cut back, the music lost shape and direction. It was, no doubt, a very frustrating experience for all involved. The chief pleasure during the concerto performance was hearing the beautiful work of the Gewandhaus woodwinds.

The Symphony No. 7 was an altogether different matter. I thought Chailly offered about as fine a Beethoven performance as one is likely to encounter today, full of forward momentum, drama and, where necessary, power. Chailly nonetheless demonstrated that he was acutely aware of the Classical basis of the score—his was nowise a Romantic interpretation of Beethoven.

Chailly’s tempi were quick, the textures lean, yet the music never lost its necessary weight. The transition from the Introduction to the Vivace was the work of a master—surely no man alive can handle this difficult transition with more understanding and authority. The Vivace was thrilling, the finest account I have ever heard in the concert hall or on disc. Imposing, full of gravitas, gripped with drama, it nonetheless MOVED—and at a perfectly-chosen tempo. The Allegretto, I thought, erred on the side of briskness—but better that, surely, than trying to turn it into an Andante movement. The Presto verged on breathless, needing a touch more air and a touch more spring to the rhythms, yet the Presto undeniably melded with Chailly’s approach to the Allegretto. The concluding Allegro had incredible energy, drive and sweep. It was at the same exalted level as the Vivace, and provided a suitable and satisfying culmination for all that had come before. Such cannot often be said of performances of Beethoven’s Seventh.

Chailly possesses one of the secrets of Herbert Von Karajan: he knows where the climax lies in each movement of each piece he conducts, and he always delivers the climax perfectly (much easier said than done). Chailly shares this special gift with no other active conductor.

I cannot remember the last time I heard as fine a Beethoven symphony performance as that we heard Thursday night. In fact, it may have been the finest Beethoven symphony performance I have ever experienced.

When we heard the Gewandhaus in 2007, the orchestra was very impressive, yet the brass was reticent and the orchestral balance not as fine as Thursday night. After an additional two years under Chailly’s direction, the orchestra sounds better than I have ever heard it. The Gewandhaus may now be Europe’s finest orchestra.

We heard the Gewandhaus close on the heels of the Concertgebouw. The Gewandhaus has the superior sound, more beautiful and more refined, with a markedly superior balance (and purer intonation as well). The level of ensemble, too, is now higher in Leipzig than in Amsterdam. Leipzig is very, very fortunate to have Chailly—and Amsterdam surely laments its loss.

Chailly and the Gewandhaus may have provided the concert of the season.

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