The Unexpected in Chailly’s Approach to Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms: Arcadi Volodos (piano) Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Barbican Hal , London 23.10.2013 (GDn)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major
Symphony No. 2 in D major


Expect the unexpected from Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester. When they tour, it is usually with core repertoire: Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler – Schumann at a push. But Chailly choses his composers carefully, always focussing on master orchestrators, whose subtle instrumental combinations he explores in depth. A Brahms symphony and concerto cycle might look, on paper, like a safe option, but Chailly ensures a surprise at every turn. He’s addicted to risks: sudden tempo shifts, strange balances, unexpected moments of calm. Not everything works – how could it? – but the result is a new view of Brahms: Classical and lean, but constantly engaging through the kaleidoscope of orchestral details that emerge.

Chailly took another risk in programming together the two most problematic works in the cycle, the rambling Second Piano Concerto with the Second Symphony, the least melodious and least loved of the four. Fortunately, the soloist chosen for the concerto was ideally matched to the work’s many challenges. Arcadi Volodos is a big man. He has the physical heft to put behind the keys for all those densely voiced passages. Despite its length and its heavy orchestration, the work also contains many tender passages, and he was able to excel here too, although seemingly despite himself. Whenever the dynamic dropped, Volodos would lean back from the keyboard and a pained expression would cross his face, as if the restraint caused him physical pain. But, loud or soft, his touch is always exquisite. In the quieter music, he has a tender lyricism, but also a real sense of tonal focus, expertly centring the tone of each note. In the louder music, he really came into his own.

The first movement in particular is filled with dense, chordal piano figurations, and Volodos was able to both give these the power they required but also variegate the tone, bringing colour to the chords, and finding play of texture and timbre within the dense voicing. Chailly, of course, did far more than just accompany, and every tutti was sculpted and overtly phrased. Pianist and conductor were clearly in very close sympathy, and even the rapid interchanges between piano and orchestra were subject to Chailly’s unpredictable rubato. Rather than impose a sense of coherency that the work itself lacks, Volodos and Chailly instead treated each movement as a separate entity, each almost a self-contained tone poem. This worked best in the Andante third movement. Here Brahms temporarily puts his symphonic ambitions on hold, and the second half of the long movement is like a daydream, airy and nebulous with no clear progression or aim. But Volodos really made this into a virtue, creating a sense of stillness and rapt hush. And the capacity audience hung on his every note, transfixed by the magical atmosphere.

Chailly has had a long and productive relationship with the Gewandhaus, one that looks set to continue with a recently announced contract extension. The orchestra is the perfect vehicle for his musical ambitions: his interpretations are all about bringing out the salient details of the orchestration, and while the orchestra functions well as a unified whole its greatest strength lies in the identity and character of its individual sections. The strings sit on a solid foundation of basses and cellos, whose rich, warm and steady tone is the anchor of the Gewandhaus sound. The upper strings don’t have that velvety richness you’ll hear in Berlin and Vienna, but employ a more sinewy and focussed tone, ideal for Chailly’s attention to line and detail.

From the start of the Second Symphony it was clear that nothing was going to be taken for granted. The main theme of the first movement, on the cellos, was aggressively shaped, with the downbeat accents emphatically emphasised. To a fault? Well, perhaps, a little more cantabile might have helped here. From then on Chailly always seemed to be looking in the last place you’d expect, to the flutes during the second subject to bring out their (usually subsumed) counterpoint, even to the second violins, seated right, in homophonic textures where their contribution seemed of little interest. Then there were the sudden changes of tempo and texture between sections, disorientating in the short term, but in the long term clearly part of a logical plan. It was very impressive to hear the orchestra always snap to Chailly’s new tempo, colour or dynamic; these might seem like surprises to us, but clearly not to them. The tuttis were the most revelatory aspect of this performance; plenty of power here, and often real exhilaration. But Chailly and his players also manage to retain that focus on the details, even in the loudest and fastest passages.

The finale began poorly – the trumpets to blame, I think – but soon picked up. No autopilot here from Chailly, of course, and each of the interludes in the rondo structure signalled a brief visit to some distant sound world. But the coda was ideal: propulsive, focussed, and made all the more exhilarating for the details of the orchestration that shone through. And for an encore? Brahms of course, his Fifth Hungarian Dance. Here at last was a work where Chailly’s radical tempos interventions were fully justified. And he didn’t hold back – or rather he did, at the end of every phrase. But as in the finale of the symphony, Chailly conjured a colourful and propulsive climax here, made all the more beguiling by the myriad orchestral details still shining through. Fabulous!

Gavin Dixon