Extraordinary Playing of Britten and German Composers at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

GermanyGermany Schumann, Britten, Mendelssohn: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 21.02.2014 (SRT)


_GWO (Ausschnitt) © Gewandhaus-Mothes
_GWO (Ausschnitt) © Gewandhaus-Mothes

Schumann: Symphony No. 4 (1841 version)
Britten: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3, “Scottish”


Being one of Germany’s most revered cultural institutions, the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester could be in danger of relying too much on its illustrious past rather than claiming its present.  After all, it’s the oldest civic orchestra in the world (founded in 1743 by music-loving citizens rather than a princely court) and its past music-directors have included Nikisch and Furtwängler, not to mention Mendelssohn himself.  After a slightly stale patch at the end of the 20th century, however, the Gewandhausorchester has been given a new lease of life, thanks in no small part to the musical directorship of Riccardo Chailly.  You need go no further than their recent complete cycles of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies for evidence that they are stripping away the layers of tradition and looking with new ears at the heritage from which they spring.

 Chailly wasn’t on duty this evening, but of all conductors, John Eliot Gardiner could most feasibly stake a claim to being a fellow traveller on the road of rediscovering tradition. You can’t get any closer to the Gewandhaus’ core repertoire than the symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Both men were grounded in the city, and this very orchestra gave the first performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony under the direction of the composer himself. Three cheers, then, that this concert felt like a rediscovery rather than a confirmation of accumulated heritage.

Gardiner’s preference for quick tempi helped to blow off any cobwebs that might be hanging around, and this gave the outer movements of the Schumann a real sense of excitement, perhaps even a hint of danger in the opening movement. But what of the sound? It is characterised overall by great presence and clarity of precision, but without ever a threat of gloopiness. There is luxury and opulence to the string tone, for example, but that is never allowed to cloy or overwhelm the textures of any other section. Gardiner helps this with his sparing use of vibrato. Thankfully, he left his hair shirt behind and so was willing to use some vibrato for some occasions, but its lack at key moments helped to heighten the drama. Schumann’s D minor opening, for example, felt spare without losing grandeur, and this lent an extra brooding quality to the music, before exploding into life in the Allegro. Then, however, the middle strings were let off their leash as they launched into the second subject, allowing more luxuriant tone to stand in contrast to the austerity of the opening, and this would later climax in a knockout cello solo in the slow movement. Gardiner also managed to build the whole thing together into an extraordinary climax as the finale approached and then appeared with the benefit of brass which gleamed majestically as they launched the theme that had been so arduously suggested in the first movement.

Gardiner showed a similar approach to Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, and the programme notes make the very good point that both symphonies date (in some form) to 1841 in the same city, so it’s legitimate to draw out comparisons. That slightly parched quality to the slow introduction helped prepare the way for an Allegro full of contrasts, and the Scherzo took off at a lick that continued with tremendous presence. Again, Gardiner was clearly building up to that moment in the finale’s coda where Mendelssohn’s major-key theme emerges like the sun from behind a cloud, carrying the symphony home in a blaze of triumph, but it got there via some beautiful string tone in the Adagio.

If Britten seemed an unusual bedfellow in this programme, then I wasn’t complaining, because the Grimes interludes brought out the most exciting, visceral, colourful playing of the whole evening. Here the lack of vibrato added to the keening quality of the opening violin unison, and the strings underpinned the Passacaglia with impressive intensity. However, it was the colour of the brass and winds that impressed me most here. The low brass, as they answered the violins in the Dawn interlude, managed to anchor the sound in an unshakeable depth while simultaneously suggesting something dangerous and uncontrollable lurking beneath. The whole orchestra seemed to be enjoying itself in Sunday Morning, so bright and bustling was the sound, and the control of the chords that opened the Moonlight interlude was remarkable. The storm was characterised by manic levels of energy together with hell-for-leather commitment from the players, and the Passacaglia (placed after the interval) showcased the virtuosity of each section. In this movement especially, Gardiner turned the screw to an immense climax, after which the return of the viola solo felt like an unanswerably bleak final statement.

Extraordinary playing and extraordinary direction made for an extraordinary concert, helped by the wonderful acoustic of the Gewandhaus Hall itself, surely the best thing the DDR ever did! If in 2014 I hear another concert this good, then I shall count myself a lucky man indeed. Incidentally, all the players were seated for the Britten, but Gardiner got the violins and violas to stand for the Schumann and Mendelssohn. I wonder….does it improve your clarity and articulation if you can’t sit down?

Simon Thompson