sun 23/09/2018

Pires, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Chailly, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Pires, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Chailly, Barbican

Pires, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Chailly, Barbican

Italian fire meets German culture in the first of three mainly-Strauss extravaganzas

Chailly and the Leipzig players at the Barbican last nightMark Allen

Riccardo Chailly’s Strauss odyssey with his Leipzig orchestra peaked in Saxony last year, the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. I was lucky to catch a razor-sharp Till Eulenspiegel and a saturated Death and Transfiguration in Dresden’s Semperoper close to the birthday. 14 months on, and the Barbican has nothing like the same necessary air to offer around a mini-residency of richly-scored symphonic poems. But Don Juan ought to be the perfect festive opener, and here it leapt into the void as only a truly alive, disciplined interpretation can.

This was a great lover very much preoccupied with mortality, as the trombones and tuba of a personable brass department underlined on the way to the “little death” of the first love scene. In the second, principal oboist Henrik Wohlgren’s unusually tough tone made it more about sex than amatory wilting, and Juan’s demise – that plunge, so radical for 1889, into minor-key darkness after so much major brilliance – thrust home with a sustained trumpet knifing; a shame he had to die to three enormous coughs from different members of the packed house.

Chailly and Pires at the BarbicanLighter love-badinage informed Mozart’s surprisingly intimate last piano concerto, the B major gem of his final year. Dorabella, the flightier sister of Così fan tutte, is the star of its Larghetto and Rondo, albeit in a transfigured form. Maria João Pires (pictured right last night) was having none of the merely pretty; she moved fleetly forward in high profile, turning the screw only in the surprising last cadenza, which suddenly talked big and dramatic. It was presumably Chailly’s idea – unprecedented, in my experience – to shrink the already small orchestra (no timpani or trumpets, nor, alas, the clarinets which charm in the other later concertos) to the front desks of strings in the most personal of dialogues with the pianist. That made for perfect chamber music, though perhaps the most uncanny moment of all was when the wind ensemble threw back the pianist’s perky lead idea in the finale as if from a nearby wood.

Chailly’s view of Strauss’s hardest-to-read orchestral monster, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) returned us to the grandiose. Which as I see it was a pity: you can present the work as a Bismarck-era battleship or a magnificent man in his flying-machine, eccentric and often comic. This take preferred the battleship, though admittedly a gold-plated one, threatening to sink at two points in the swaggering introduction but just a little more prone to be taken seriously as Strauss follows parody and persiflage with a leavetaking of the world of genuine, if brief, nobility and pathos.

This was nobly done, and if the performance clocked in as one of the longest – I didn’t time it, but it felt that way – there was one real asset contributing to that far from enervating impression. Leader, or concertmaster as they say on the continent, Frank-Michael Erben, was allowed to take his time over the portrait of “the hero’s companion” – a sometimes cartoonish sketch of Strauss’s moody wife Pauline to make a perfect foil to the mock-epic protagonist. For the first time, I was as aware of the male voice in the courtship, warming slowly in the depths of the orchestra, as Erben made of the insanely difficult violin solo a real character-study, not just an occasion for virtuosity.

The orchestral horns shone, too, and not always in the expected places – bells in the air really making a difference to the high noon of heroism, mutes queasying the retreat long after the last nightmarish onrush of hostile critics. So thanks as always to Chailly for enlightenment in unexpected places, but I like my hero to fly with a wink and a nudge, as he no doubt would in the hands of Chailly’s impending successor in Leipzig, the no-holds-barred Andris Nelsons. This approach, though, should do the more serious weirdness of Also sprach Zarathustra proud tomorrow.

  • Two more Leipzig concerts at the Barbican on Thursday 22 and Friday 23 October, plus masterclasses and talks

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