A Compelling Beethoven Concert from Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

30/10/2011

Steffen Schleiermacher, Beethoven: Leipzig Gwandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (conductor) Barbican Hall, London, 26 10 11 (GD)

Steffen Schleiermacher: Bann. Bewegung mit Beethovens Erster (UK premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony No.1 in C major, Op. 21
Symphony No 7 in A major, Op. 92

One of the most innovative and imaginative features of this Beethoven Cycle in concert is to include a contemporary orchestral work, each especially commissioned for the cycle, and each as a response to each specific Beethoven symphony. It is a pity that these new works are not, as far as I can discern, being included in the forthcoming CD set of the cycle. Tonight”s composition, we are told by the composer, is a response to Beethoven’s First Symphony, not in terms of direct quotations, but more to the structural (one could even say spatial) contour of th symphony. Aspects of Beethoven’s tonal design have been inverted (eg, the chordal sequence of the first movement of the First Symphony). Here the composers analogy to ‘Cubist – style’ tonal/harmonic re-casting seems most apt. Schleiermacher claims to have effected a ‘dialectic’ between stasis and movement. Of course one could argue that this is a basic feature of Western classical music, especially as it developed in the ‘classical’ sonata form. And Schleiermacher is obviously aware of this tradition. But it is the way in which he has incorporated stasis and movement in a work which lasts little over 15 minutes. The sense of movement, rhythm gradually giving way not only to stasis, but on several occasions well graded and timed silence, was most impressive, in musical terms giving the impression of a much more spacious sound-scape than its actual clock time would indicate. From the opening Beethovenian chordal ff tutti sequences (found in the closing cadences of the first movement and coda of the First Symphony) giving way to a chordal pattern for solo timpani and other instruments, I had the sense of a very economic and well designed concerto for orchestra. It was amazing to realise that the orchesra here was virtually the same size as in the following Beethoven symphony. We had some excellent playing from the superb Leipzig orchestra; the thythmic patterns in the double basses were particularly resonant; and overall it was a pleasure to hear music of such dynamic/rhythmic exactitude and contrast played with such exactitude in terms of ensemble – absolute tonal precison and rhythmic accuracy.. All of this sounded wonderfully musical, Chailly always ensuring that such excellent playing never gave way to flashy virtuosity for its own sake.

Chailly treated Beethoven’s First Symphony not as a curtain opener, a mere extension of Haydn’s mastery of the classical symphonic form, but as Beethoven’s bold opening symphonic statement, already showing signs of a more powerful and dramatic kind of symphonic argument. The slow introduction was beautifully inflected with a sonorous wind band contribution. The transition to the ‘Allegro con brio’ was deftly handled and this was a real ‘allegro’. Indeed here, as in the seventh symphony, Toscanini’s direct sustained and rhythmically charged Beethoven came to mind. So much benefitted tonight from the deployment of antiphonal violins. This was particularly effective in the fugal opening of the second movement F major ‘Andante cantabile’; again Chailly, like Toscanini, observed the ‘con moto’ instruction. And how wonderfully Chailly balanced the underlying rhythm here in trumpets and drums in C and G. Here the parallels with the andante of Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony, K 425, also in C major, were particularly striking. Trumpets and drums were also to the fore in the third movement ‘Minuet’ (really an early Beethoven Scherzo). Chailly took great care in the trio to mould the ‘throbbing wind-band calls with’ the accompanying violin runs, played acurately for once. Again the final Allegro molto vivace developed absolutely naturally from the Adagio introduction. The lead up to the powerful dominant key coda was timed to perfection, and what Tovey called the ‘absurd little march’ just preceding the coda was played with absolute rhythmic accuracy which, if anything, added to the comic note and thus provided a fitting contrast to the short but triumphant coda. In some ways this was old fashioned, big band Beethoven, but nothing here seemed old fashioned! And with an absolute minimum of vibrato, a foregrounding of woodwinds and cutting trumpets with hard timpani sticks Chailly’s Beethoven had all the clarity of a ‘period’ rendition, with added orchestral weight when required.

From the first f A major chord Chailly demonstrated a real symphonic grasp of the following long sostenuto introduction of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Again comparisons with Toscanini came to mind: the same dramatic intensity in the difficult scale passages, the same clarity of texture; no trace of a ‘join’ in the transition to the vivace with its 6/8 theme in the flutes. The main vivace gained in contour and stature through having its repeat observed, and even if Chailly couldn’t quite achieve rhythmic power and ‘bounce’ of a Toscanini here, the whole movement, with its dramatically charged ff climax and the build-up crescendo to the coda, with a dramatic increase in volume without any increase in tempo, made a powerful effect. Everything in the second movement Allegretto, from the A minor opening chord on eight woodwind instruments, to the delicately interwoven clarity of the brief fugal section, and the beautifully balanced pizzicato/arco coda, was utterly compelling. There was no point making or underlining here and the music was always convincingly sustained with plenty of allegretto movement. Chailly correctly observed all repeats in both symphonies tonight, including those in the two trio statements of the third movement scherzo of the Seventh. After recently hearing a fine performance which for me was ruined by the conductor dragging the trio sections in the old ‘bad’ manner, I was delighted that Chailly took the trio sections at roughly 76, compared to the 132 for the scherzo proper – in other words as Beethoven intended, a true ‘assai meno presto’. The main scherzo was a model of rhythmic buoyancy and matching dymanics.

In the Finale, Allegro con brio, Chailly managed to retain a degree of power in reserve for what Tovey termed the movement’s ‘Bacchic fury’., especially in its tumultuous coda. Towards the coda, with a slight but subtle increase in tempo, I almost had the sense of Chailly allowing the tempo to run away with him. But in a concert performance this slight feeling of risk added a frisson, which certainly worked on tonight’s audience. Perhaps at a slighty more measured, sustained tempo the con brio would have been more effective in terms of allowing an extra dynamic power, especially in the grim ostinato bass figure which pervades the coda? But the final fff asked for (a rare marking in Beethoven), was triumphantly reached, again with trenchantly sustained and compellingly dramatic playing from this superb orchestra.

Geoff Diggines.

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