wed 21/08/2019

Prom 75: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gilbert | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 75: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gilbert

Prom 75: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gilbert

A monumental season's close to the 2014 Proms from a great orchestra

Alan Gilbert: cooler and more contained than Chailly, draws a very different character from the Leipzig OrchestraChris Christodoulou

The silliness of the Last Night is really just a postscript to the penultimate night of the Proms, traditionally given over to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was a tradition restored yesterday evening when Alan Gilbert and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra returned for their second concert of the season. For anyone whose stomach is liable to turn at extrovert jingoism and excess, this was the perfect antidote.

Febrile and urgent under Chailly, the orchestra found rather different colours in Beethoven’s final symphony for Gilbert – cooler, quieter, more understated. I’ve never heard the opening Allegro nor the closing Presto begin so quietly in concert – certainly not in a hall of this size. Apart from the front row of the Prommers I’m fairly certain that, in fact, no one in the hall heard the final movement start at all. This was pianissimo taken beyond textural colour and dangerously close to gimmick – startlingly ineffectual, it turned out, at silencing a more than usually consumptive crowd.

The sensation of stillness came into its own in the slow movement, melodies drifting smoke-like across the stage

But for the most part this was an elegant performance, more measured in its tempos than we would have heard from Chailly, and less compulsively forward-driving, but still beautifully coloured from the orchestra’s exceptional woodwind (heard at their finest in the second movement trio) and explosive timpani. Gilbert’s gestures are visually very contained, and perhaps this directs the ear to hear a strange calm underlying even a fairly pacy second movement.

The sensation of stillness came into its own in the slow movement, melodies drifting smoke-like across the stage, forming and reforming for the variations. Only the final variation, with its violent interruptions, lacked fire, refusing to play up to the space with something more than polite musical intrusion.

For the finale, the orchestra were joined by the massed forces of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir and Children’s Choir, the Leipzig Opera Chorus and the London Symphony Chorus. The addition of children’s voices was particularly effective – here really were “Alle menschen”, "all mankind" – and tempered a more operatic-tending sound with a bladed edge that cut to the emotive core of the matter and Schiller’s text.

Of the soloists, tenor Steve Davislim (pictured above) was a standout, phrasing beautifully even at the extremes of range and volume. Fresh from her schoolgirl turn as Almirena in Glyndebourne’s Rinaldo, soprano Christina Landshamer proved she was holding back rather more than she was showing in the Handel, easily projecting into the space and with a sweetness that more experienced sopranos have lacked in previous years.

As amuse-bouche musical opener, Friedrich Cerha’s Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was rather lost in scuffling and rustling. One of five new works commissioned by Chailly and the orchestra to preface their Beethoven symphony cycle concerts, its allegiance to the Ninth isn’t immediately obvious to the ear, though its opening harmonic sequence – a chain of descending fourths – is drawn directly from its source. Most dominant are the bell sounds from tuned percussion and woodwind that hang in the air, poised and still where the Beethoven is nervy and directional. It’s an attractive soundworld, but one where changes are so gradual that they can easily lose the listener before they arrive at their destination.

We’ve seen a number of concerts charged with a social and political message this year, from the likes of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the World Orchestra for Peace. But Beethoven’s potently hopeful musical statement is still hard to outdo, and as the serious finish to a Proms season set against ever more conflicted international events, it couldn’t have felt more right or proper.

Comments

Interesting review but wrong on at least one count; I was in section L1 near the back of the stalls and the opening of final movement was crystal clear! I thought this was a near perfect performance, if there is such a thing ...

I thoroughly enjoyed last night's 9th. The performance was at times less-than-perfect, perhaps, but nevertheless very 'likeable' throughout. The choir was (or rather, the choirs were) especially noteworthy, and received suitably thunderous applause. Afterwards I overheard someone describe the sound of the string section as 'thin', which was completely at odds with my take on it; I thought it was quite soft, rather (soft as in mellow, not woolly). Would be interesting to hear what others made of it. I wasn't expecting much of the Paraphrase, but actually found it quite interesting and enjoyable, and a perfect appetiser to pave the way for the main act.

Terrific night. Some perceptive comments made by the reviewer. Cerha's work was ruined a tad by the amount of snuffling in the room, it is a soundscape and for many, possible a little bit unreachable. The choirs were excellent - vibrant, sometimes fierce. Excellent soloists. A comment on the quiet openings. I thought they were terrific (sitting in the stalls on the side) - I felt as if I had to hold my breath just so I could take it all in. Oh and by the way, I am Motorhead fan! So I know a lot about dynamics! Great show. Well done all who took part.

As usual the orchestras was not big enough to fill the vast space of the Albert Hall. The second movement lacked drive, especially the crescendo leading to the timpani strokes, which were supposed to have ''driven audiences in Beethoven's time to fear and frenzy''. I invite your readers to compare this performance with that of Karajan from the mid-sixties. However, the wonderful tunes in the slow movement were beautifully played, and the very quiet start to the final movement conveyed an incredible tension and excitement for what was to come. The idea of combining adult and children's choirs was a success.

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