Concision and Expansiveness in Chailly’s Leipzig Concert

GermanyGermany Brahms: Arcadi Volodos (piano), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Neues Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 11.10.2013 (MB)

Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73
Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.83

Riccardo Chailly’s recent Decca recordings of the Brahms symphonies and assorted other orchestral works are being heavily promoted by symphony-and-concerto cycles (the concertos do not appear in the Decca set)  first in Leipzig, and later in London, Paris, and Vienna. I cannot claim to have been a devotee of Chailly’s Beethoven, much though I love the sound of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and so, not having heard the Brahms recordings, approached this concert with some trepidation. Perhaps I should have recalled a Prom a good few years ago, in which Beethoven and Brahms were combined, for I had found the latter far more to my liking. At any rate, if the inevitable list of favourites from the past remains unchallenged, a problem almost as great for Brahms as for Beethoven, this concert offered rewards beyond the undoubted pleasure of this great orchestra’s ‘old German’ sound.

The first movement of the Second Symphony was certainly not slow, but nor was it unduly driven. Tempo variations were properly transitional, with none of the abrupt gear changes one often hears in this music from ‘period’ conductors attempting to sound ‘Romantic’. Chailly’s reading focused attention upon Brahms’s concision, at least during the exposition; yet there was room for expansiveness later on too. Counterpoint was not merely ‘busy’, but urgently propelling. This remained Brahms somewhat in the mould of Schumann, even Mendelssohn, but there was strength where required. Here and elsewhere, the Leipzig woodwind ravished in properly post-Mozartian mould; such was Harmoniemusik to melt the heart of the most sceptical of listeners. Schumann seemed still more to haunt the second movement, more an intermezzo than an Adagio, even with the caveat non troppo. Yet it worked; it seemed properly ‘placed’ within Chailly’s conception of the whole. Impressively shaped, Brahms’s melodic transformations had a necessary sense of ‘rightness’. Much the same could be said of the third movement in its different way. Balletic to an extent that on occasion suggested Tchaikovsky, it is not how I should always want to hear the music. Here, however, it made sense. The finale opened in what was perhaps overly excitable fashion, and remained urgent throughout. Despite occasional lapses in ensemble, the Gewandhaus Orchestra once again displayed a fine pedigree in Brahms. The first of the composer’s Hungarian Dances made for a swashbuckling and surprising encore – given that this was only the first half.

Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto is not so often heard as one might expect. Though I have loved it since I first heard it as a sixth-former, I cannot recall having attended a single concert performance, though I have often heard its D minor elder sibling. Its ferocious technical demands were met with ease by Arcadi Volodos; yet, however impressive on its own terms, such pianistic prowess is only a starting-point for a musical performance. Technique, as Sir Peter Pears once remarked, is the liberation of the imagination – or at least it should be. If Chailly and Volodos did not plumb the metaphysical depths of, say, Gilels and Jochum, in what remains to my mind the greatest recording I have heard of the greatest piano concerto since Beethoven, they nevertheless offered a thoroughly musical traversal. The orchestra sounded lithe in its exposition, Chailly’s occasional rhetorical inflections convincing and purposeful rather than attention-seeking. There was strength, truthfulness even, to Volodos’s performance when he re-entered. If, hearing his tone ‘blind’, I might have thought it more apposite to Liszt than to Brahms, that was perhaps as much a matter of his Steinway as anything else. (I cling in principle to my preference for a Bösendorfer here, though a great performance will soon rid my mind of such thoughts.) Moreover, the ‘fullness’ of Brahms’s piano writing was felt, understood, and communicated without heaviness. Trills were to die for too. And what a gloriously full-blooded string sound was unleashed on occasion. The scherzo was urgent, though not unduly driven. Volodos’s phrasing and shading were just as intelligent here. That difficult transition to the trio was well handled by Chailly, the ensuing cross-rhythms making their point. The slow movement was flowing, never rigid. Hand on heart, I found it difficult to warm to the tone of the principal cellist, relatively thin, with wide vibrato apparently employed to compensate. His solos were well shaped however, and taste is certainly a factor in such matters. Volodos displayed rich variation in piano tone, from half lights that peered forward to the late solo works to a full Brahms thunder that evoked the First Piano Concerto. There were wonderful moments of rapt stillness too, from orchestra and soloist alike. The finale was well judged, with a winning lilt that eludes a good number of performers. Once again, the Leipzig woodwind proved an especial joy, prompting memories of the symphony in the first half, helping to impart further unity to an impressive Sunday morning concert.

Mark Berry