United Kingdom Strauss, Mozart Maria João Pires (piano); Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly. Barbican Hall, London, 20.10.2015 (CC)
Strauss – Don Juan, Op. 20
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat, K595
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40
‘Richard Strauss, the story teller’ is the title of the third and latest Barbican residency of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. This first concert of the series sandwiched Mozart’s glorious last piano concerto between two Strauss orchestral showpieces.
Dating from 1888, Don Juan is the swashbuckling music of youth. The huge orchestra is used with masterly skill, a point known to all but worth making again in the light of Chailly’s approach. There is something of the Sinopoli, or perhaps on a different canvas, Pollini, in Chailly’s near-deconstructionist clarity. Pardon the oncoming Straussian pun, but Strauss’ changes of mood and texture were revealed with quixotic, even mercurial ease. What distinguishes Chailly’s brand of deconstruction from Sinopoli’s is Chailly’s maintenance of a rich, warm sound. The combination of sonorous sound and X-ray clarity of line is a powerful one. Technically, the performance was near faultless, from the gorgeous, poignant oboe through to the perfect unison octave slurs of the grand, heroic horn gesture.
Mozart’s last piano concerto might seem a long way to travel after that, but links between Strauss and Mozart have, after all, always been strong. Pires was on top form, fresh of approach and technically irreproachable, her varied touch a continuous source of joy. Chailly opted to pare down the strings from an already small body in the central Larghetto, something that only increased the intimacy of the performance. The brisk finale, blessed with perfect articulation from Pires, was a joy.
Dating from around a decade later than Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben can come across as an unruly, indulgent behemoth. No so here. Chailly’s fine shaping of the opening paragraph paved the way for a performance that sought, successfully, to balance the masculine, Mars-like heroism with a clear Venusian element. Concertmaster Frank-Michel Erben’s violin solos exuded character; the cor anglais solos were radiant; and how interesting it was to hear tasteful vibrato in the horn solos. This was a Heldenleben that strove to embrace the World – or at least the World as the hero, Strauss himself, saw it.
It was interesting that Don Juan had opened the concert, and that work is quoted in Heldenleben. Do we hear the quote differently in this context?. Certainly it seemed to draw strands together in a fresh way, indicative, perhaps, of the thought that Chailly obviously puts into his interpretations. A superb performance, then, and received as such by the packed Barbican audience. No encore, but one would have been sacrilege, anyway. A sterling start to the Gewandhaus residency.