Beethoven renaissance? / Gewandhaus Orchestra / Barbican Hall – 1 November 2011

3 Nov

There aren’t many orchestras in the world that can claim to have been around when Beethoven was composing his Symphonies, the Gewandhaus can and surely has one of the most enviable pedigrees in the business. Since its foundation in 1743 it has been a mainstay of orchestral playing in Europe alongside The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras. One goes to one of their concerts with high expectations, especially when they are playing two Beethoven symphonies in one evening!

This was their third concert at the Barbican as part of their full cycle of Beethoven Symphonies as a promotion for their set released by Decca last week.  The recordings have been (as usually the case with Decca) overhyped and created pent up anticipation in the smallish orchestral loving circles.

When I was growing up the two complete Beethoven cycles I owned were the Karajan/Berlin Phil and the Sawallisch/Royal Concertgebouw. Those Symphonies seemed the pinnacle of orchestral accomplishment, they were big and bold. Surely as impressionable 12 year old I embraced the excitement and grandeur. This symphonic cycle is like no other, it shaped the very make up of symphony orchestras that we listen to today. And became the early war horse of nascent record companies trying to sell records for the gramophone. Intriguingly in you search for Beethoven Symphonies you get 2956 results in the database of back issues of Gramophone Magazine. So when a new set comes out, there is a long and hard discussion of the treatment of this Mount Parnassus of music making in minute detail. Chailly’s cycle has caused some disquiet as he has elected to use the original metronome values, away from most established performance practice that deems them too fast. So I chose to go to the concert that contained a mature work (No8) and his most prominent slow movement (the funereal march in No3). Would the speed ruin the atmosphere of the No3, would the sprightly No8 sparkle?

The audience reception was very warm at the start of the concert, with thunderous applause for the maestro. Being on the second row from the stage I was rather alarmed by the amount of patent leather on show, the players of the Gewandhaus do dress traditionally in dark grey tails or black ensembles for the ladies. A world away from most British orchestras, but then this is the oldest orchestra in the world, we’ll allow them to hold on to their old fashioned garb.

I was very happy to read about Chailly including contemporary compositions to their Beethoven programmes, after all they championed Beethoven’s compositions when they were only months old. So it was appropriate and it paid off, Colin Matthews’ Grand Barcarolle had affinities mainly to Symphony No3, when it came to the mood it portrayed. It had some exquisite string passages that enveloped us gently and made a great opener before the main event. The composer looked very moved and thankful to Chailly and the orchestra and I can imagine very few higher honours than having a composition played by these wonderful players.

Symphony No8 displayed in abundance the wonderful woody, centre heavy sound of the orchestra. They surely have an individual sound. Being used to great effect when floating between Beethoven’s intermingling themes and variations. The pomp and romp of the second movement was brought almost to an operatic finale, a truly exceptionally vibrant and alive reading. An interesting manifestation of the relationship between the Italian conductor, his fiery personality and the considerable heft of this historic orchestra. This symphony does give a great insight into Beethoven’s mature writing, with great attention to woodwind and seamless orchestration of the different incidents into a satisfying, uplifting whole. Listening to it one can feel his excitement for this amazing instrument (the orchestra) and using it’s chromatic and dynamic variation to bring light and shade into a coherent inspiring union. The feverish finale was exciting (especially if you weren’t looking at some bored and immobile people in the front row).  It built up the expectation for the second half.

Beethoven’s Eroica, is one my most favourite works, especially the deep sadness in the funereal march with its haunting horn led theme. So was slightly worried if the majesty and poise of the march would be preserved. The first movement indeed had a lot of brio and the string playing was open but not too overindulgent and glistening. When the second movement started the hushed beginning was fluid and had all the empathy and weightiness one would expect. Chailly’s conducting was trying to bring out the intricate detailing of all the ornamentation, bringing into sharp focus all the characteristic small conversations between orchestral sections that is so typical of Beethoven. I’m sure some people may find that very detail focused playing to be a distraction from the painful core of this movement, but I was won over and seemed like a great way to add more verve to this movement that can so easily sag into a mournful mess. The shaping and flow were electric, goose bump inducing to the max.

The next two movements were again beautifully played and I’d call them a ballet for my toes…which jumped around and tapped around my shoes in tune to the forward, energetic playing and the maestro’s own dance routines 😉 Surely not a dull moment during those movements and with a tight focus on the mood and overall structure. Have to say at times the brass seemed a bit too hot but that has to do more with the acoustic of the hall and my proximity to the stage.

Now I can’t finish this small report without mentioning the relationship between Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus. The orchestra was totally obedient, well rehearsed and clearly responding to Chailly’s exuberant, physical way of conducting. Every pizzicato note was clearly articulated by his baton and the players became an extension of the maestro. In many ways a very old fashioned way to conduct business but it really works. As Chailly has a much more fiery temperament than the orchestra, when they come together it’s a beguiling, verging on the intoxicating, combination.

Can’t imagine anyone at the Barbican being left unmoved by some of that magic, despite any disagreements on the fast tempi. Who said those symphonies were the domain for grandiose statements by 80 year old conductors building a legacy. On Tuesday night those two works were played with commitment and freshness, despite the fact this is their fourth full cycle in the last few months. Now I’ll be chomping through the recorded set and see if their sound has been captured in all it’s fullness. It must be a great time for a new generation to fall in love with this orchestral staple. 

Tweets from the night: 

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