United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2016 (13) – Bach, Bruckner: Julian Rachin (violin), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Usher Hall, 26.8.2016. (SRT)
Bach: Violin Concerto in E major
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5
I’ve waxed lyrical before about what a good job Fergus Linehan has done in reviving the EIF’s classical music programme. His biggest coup of this year has been to bring the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; perhaps even greater when you realise that they are doing two nights in Edinburgh and only one at the Proms. They arrived in Edinburgh tonight bearing as great a weight of expectation as the great weight of the German tradition they carry. They did not disappoint.
In these days when period instruments have become the norm for Baroque music, the Gewandhaus aren’t the first orchestra that springs to mind for Bach. Don’t forget, however, that Bach spent the greatest part of his professional life in Leipzig, and the Gewandhaus still play regularly as the orchestra for sacred music at the city’s Thomaskirche. Fielding only fourteen strings plus harpsichord, they made a cosy, warm ensemble for the buoyant E major violin concerto, judging both the sound and the hall just right, and creating a much more genial sound than you’ll hear from most period orchestras. Julian Rachin played the solo part as though he were a member of the orchestra – first among equals – and his totally unshowy way with the violin suited the music and the atmosphere wonderfully well, as did the singing quality to his tone, best shown in the arioso slow movement, which achieved a beautiful pianissimo moment when the music fell into the major key.
You can’t play Bruckner with fourteen strings, however, and it was a vastly expanded band that filled the stage for the second half. Like Bach, hearing this orchestra play Bruckner is almost like hearing it at the source, partly because the Gewandhaus gave the very first performance of the composer’s seventh symphony, but more so because there can be few ensembles so steeped in the German tradition, and Bruckner embodies a whole segment of that tradition which they bring to life so well. Their key attribute for this music was their sensational string section. The cellos and violas surged with gold as they introduced the first movement’s main theme, and when the violins introduced the second theme they sounded almost as dark and rich as the cellos. The moment in the second movement, when all come together to introduce its great major-key theme, was something to make the scalp prickle, a moment to savour and re-live in your mind long afterwards, and the way the strings seared through the counterpoint of the finale was hugely impressive. Elsewhere the orchestra’s pedigree seemed to seep from every note. The low brass can shake you to the core, while the leaping trumpets seemed to soar over the great chorale theme, and the oboe solo at the start of the slow movement was aristocratic and noble rather than merely keening.
Herbert Blomstedt cut an understated, grandfatherly figure on the podium, seeming to achieve great effects with very little action, but always as though steering something massive with the power of an ocean liner, particularly in the outer movements. He brought out the Mahlerian elements of the Scherzo, with very Ländlerish moments in the outer sections, and managed to keep up something of the dance throughout the large scale business of the finale. The culmination of the whole work was the great double fugue about half way through the last movement, where the different blocks of sound seemed to layer themselves upon one another with paradoxical delicacy amid the huge scale of what was going on, and the amazing clarity to the massive ending almost defied belief. This is the only concert this year where I’ve seen the conductor take five bows, but every one of them was justified.
The 2016 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk.