Chailly’s Magnificent Rachmaninov in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. Lynn Harrell (cello) Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 25.10.2012 (JQ)

Shostakovich:  Cello Concerto No 2, Op. 126
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op. 27

This concert, which was part of a short European tour by the Gewandhausorchester, was the musical equivalent of the proverbial Game of Two Halves.

In the first half Lynn Harrell joined the orchestra for Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto. As its opus number attests, this is a fairly late work, dating from 1966. Like his previous essay in the form it was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, who premièred it. By the time he wrote this concerto Shostakovich was already in poor health and this may go some way to explaining an air of melancholy that pervades a good deal of the music. Indeed, the first movement , an extended Largo, begins with the soloist playing alone and musing reflectively. As Mark Fielding put it in his programme note, the opening measures find the cellist “beginning a lonely, inner journey with music that is both introspective and austere.”

That was evident from Mr Harrell’s delivery of those opening bars but thereafter I found his performance increasingly perplexing. I freely confess that although I greatly admire Shostakovich’s symphonies I find it hard to warm to this particular concerto. Arguably, the nature of the music is such that one should not warm to it and I certainly respect it. However, the solo line is often uningratiating, and, even allowing for the introspective nature of the work, I think it needs to be projected more strongly than was the case in this performance. I suspect that Mr Harrell’s view of the piece was introspective and reflective, which is fine, but I’m afraid I found much of his playing came across as too self-effacing. To be fair, Shostakovich doesn’t help matters in the sense that, in the first two movements at least, he provides few opportunities for the soloist to exploit the cello’s lyrical, singing qualities; but even when there was a more lyrical line in the concluding Allegretto, Mr Harrell seemed strangely reticent and somewhat muted, at least to my ears.

This approach did not extend to the orchestra, which under Riccardo Chailly’s shrewd and alert leadership provided clear, strongly characterised accompaniment. The orchestration is often quirky – tambourine rolls accompanying the third movement cadenza, for example; the remarkable writing for horns and snare drum immediately preceding that cadenza; and, of course, the mighty bass drum strokes – here delivered with frightening intensity – that punctuate the first movement cadenza. All these and many more imaginatively conceived details were put across tellingly by the orchestra, which also touched in the many subtle passages of quiet music very sensitively. Had their soloist taken a slightly more vivid approach to the solo part I think we would have had a much more convincing performance.

I should say, in the interest of balance, that mine was clearly a minority view for the audience accorded Mr Harrell a vociferously appreciative reception after his performance. They were rewarded with an encore in the shape of one of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux.

After the interval Chailly led what I can only say was one of the very finest accounts of the Rachmaninov Second Symphony that I have ever heard, whether on disc or in the concert hall. Here it’s perhaps relevant to say a word about the orchestral layout, which was unusual in my experience. Chailly divided his violins left and right – a splendid decision, which brought benefits at several key points, such as the fugal episode in the second movement. The cellos were seated to the left of the first violins, right in front of the conductor. With the violas to their left – between the cellos and the second violins – this meant that the tenor section of the orchestra was right in the heart of the layout. It was the positioning of the double basses – all eight of them – which was most unusual. Chailly had them placed to his left, behind the first violins – the two harps were over on the conductor’s right, where the basses would normally be. The basses were also raised up a bit more than is often the case and one could hear their important line very well. In addition Chailly had his brass section not behind the rest of the orchestra but instead they were at the back and off to his right. I don’t know if Chailly usually adopts this unconventional layout but it seemed to me to work most effectively and perhaps this, together with the skill of the players, explains why quite a number of small details that often go unremarked, even on a CD, registered with me on this occasion..

Chailly’s conception of the symphony was big and full-hearted. Unlike some conductors he made the exposition repeat in the first movement. This made for a long movement – some twenty-three minutes – and in lesser hands and with a lesser orchestra the movement might have seemed unwieldy and overlong. Instead, we got the chance to hear a second time some glorious Russian romantic music, superbly played. The sonority of the Leipzig orchestra was marvellous and just as rich and thrilling in the softer passages as in the loudest tuttis. Chailly invested Rachmaninov’s long sweeping melodies with ardour – both here and in the later movements. In the second movement the fast episodes were dynamic and thrilling; and when Rachmaninov turned back to sweeping lyricism again Chailly and his players responded generously.

The Gewandhausorchester’s principal clarinettist, Peter Schurrock, came into his own in the third movement, playing the celebrated solo magnificently and with fine feeling. His colleagues took up the challenge willingly, treating us to some glorious, romantic playing. Chailly paced the music expertly, taking it expansively but ready to move things forward with purpose in the lead-up to the main climax. The finale was ebullient and festive and Chailly maintained the momentum, even in those passages where Rachmaninov can’t resist another passage of soaring lyrical music. There was urgency throughout this movement except, of course, during the brief reminiscence of the third movement. When Chailly and his players brought the symphony home exultantly the audience erupted into a richly deserved ovation.

Years ago Rachmaninov’s symphony was viewed in some quarters with embarrassment – and by some with contempt – as a ramshackle piece that needed to be presented, if at all, in a cut form for its own good. Thankfully, those days are long past and a performance such as this, burning with conviction and superbly played, confirms its stature as one of the peaks of Russian symphonic literature.

John Quinn