Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra play Chopin and Brahms at Carnegie Hall

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Riccardo Chailly, photo von Mothes

Riccardo Chailly, photo von Mothes

Carnegie Hall, February 28, 2010
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly, Conductor

Fryderyk Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11
Louis Lortie, piano

Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 2 In D Major, Op. 73

The visit of the Leipzig Gewandhaus brings to a close the series of concerts by the great central European orchestras in Carnegie Hall. (Only the Dresdener Staatskapelle was lacking, and they are scheduled to appear next season.) It is a unique pleasure to hear a comprehensive series of these great ensembles in one hall, which also happens to possess one of the finest acoustics in the world. It is also a familiar one to me, since I have been attending concerts at Carnegie since childhood, when the New York Philharmonic still played there. The restoration has impaired its full glory somewhat, but I’ve grown used to the sound as it is—a bit too bright, but capable of embracing the grandest orchestral tutti and projecting the finest detail of a solo instrument up to the rafters. As an environment for comparison, only Symphony Hall in Boston can rival it, but the program of visiting orchestras in Boston has sadly diminished over the years. Only the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus have played in Boston this season. (I was only recently reminiscing with a friend about how we used to hear Cleveland and other great American orchestras, as well as Vienna and Berlin in Symphony Hall more or less annually.)

On Sunday afternoon there were only a few empty seats to be seen. The eager crowd seemed to be divided for the most part between people who had come to pay homage to a venerable German cultural institution and those who had come to hear the work of one of our great conductors. What they heard was a well-intentioned gesture for the 200th birthday of Poland’s most internationally visible cultural hero, as well as an unforgettable performance of a symphony by Brahms, a composer who has been of special interest to Maestro Chailly.

The excellent Québequois pianist Louis Lortie was filling in for Nelson Freire for the tour. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and the Chopin First had been scheduled. Not many pianists can make an equally convincing statement of both works, as Dinu Lipatti and Benedetto Michelangeli have done in the past. The winter storms prevented me from hearing M. Lortie’s Emperor in Boston, but, given my knowledge of his repertory, I assume the Gewandhaus decided in Beethoven’s favor. Louis Lortie is an intellectual pianist, and he approached the Chopin as a shallow display piece which happens to offer a few episodes which happen to arouse his interest. Great Chopin playing should at least seem emotional and intuitive, which is why Chopin remains something of a speciality, in spite of the fact that many pianists feel it necessary to put him on their programs. (Chopin is hardly the most avidly appreciated composer in Alfred Brendel’s legacy, while Peter Serkin is an anomalous Chopin master.) The performance was not helped by the rather niggardly Steinway Lortie chose. Its midrange and bass were lackluster, but it had a brilliant high register, in which M. Lortie took special delight. A series of delicate ppp bars in the slow movement was mesmerizing, as were other passages which attracted his special attention. More generally, he projected his pleasure in the virtuosity of the keyboard work. Otherwise the performance was not especially involving. Chopin soon went far beyond the quality of his two early piano concerti, in any case, and in his encore, the Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3, Lortie had far richer material for his insight into Chopin. His interpretation of this work was truly impressive: he showed a compelling grasp of structure, as well as the drama of Chopin’s harmonies. His tone was a trifle cold, but exquisite—and large when it had to be.

Already in Maestro Chailly’s detailed and finely judged treatment of the Chopin’s orchestral parts, unique qualities of the orchestra came through. Most impressive was the seamless blend the entire orchestra and especially the strings could achieve in tutti passages. The rich, dusky forest of sound made an indelible impression, as did the silky timbre of the violins, the pungent violas, and the resplendent cellos in lyrical passages.

Brahms’ Second Symphony offered a much better opportunity to savor the Gewandhaus’ playing and Chailly’s unfailing originality and perception. This notwithstanding, the Second crops up just a bit too often on concert programs these days, and I anticipated it with something less than baited breath. I was in fact totally unprepared for the revelation I was about to hear.

Without exception modern conductors take the Second as an elegiac, occasionally even somewhat depressive meditation on nature, which is mediated through Brahms’ polite allusions to countrified motifs, rhythms, and instrumental combinations. If the broad pace of the opening movement suggests a walk in the country, it is a very slow one, amply filled with pauses for sighs or mental abstraction. In Chailly’s interpretation, which was freshly thought out from beginning to end, Brahms’ progress was much more athletic. In this quicker tempo, there was a spring to the phrasing, enlivened by a clear sense of the give and take between the individual phrases of the theme, given as they are to diverse choirs. The dreamy transitional section lost nothing in the heightened flow and tension, and neither did the cantabile second subject. In this the colors of the various sections which carry the tune were strongly characterized and contrasted, especially the violas and cellos. As the forward-moving urgency mounted in the later thematic material and the development, the clear textures and strongly moulded phrasing kept us focused on the brilliant details in Brahms’ composition against any generalized sense of excitement. These same qualities preserved the final bars from any sense of flaccidity or exhaustion. Chailly made the music dance and never lost track of the dance-like pulse behind even the most lyrical passages in the later movements.

Chailly took up the second movement with a similar liveliness, which never compromised the movement’s lyricism or dignity. Again, the characterful strings, textured brass, and colorful woodwinds made the most of the contrasts and transitions in Brahms’ writing. Especially evident was the Gewandhaus’ extraordinary ability to shift back and forth between a chamber-music-like distinction of timbre among the diverse sections and the extraordinary homogeneity mentioned above.

The dance-like elements so appealingly coming and going through the first two movements came entirely into the foreground in the third movement. It was as if the dance had gracefully come into its own as a polite Viennese interpretation of a country dance—but not without nostalgic lapses into the elegiac mood of the slow movement. These rhythms and intervals undergo a further transformation in the finale, which, like the earlier movements, seemed fresh and new, as if a yellowed varnish had been cleaned away. Chailly and the orchestra gave the opening pp its full due, breaking out into a moderated outburst. Throughout the first section, Brahms energy and exuberance built up to a point where one might imagine there was nowhere further to go, but the Maestro had more in reserve. He not only projected the structure and variety of the music, but its force and good cheer as well. The familiar brass chords at the end had a marvellous gritty sound, as well as bringing the progress of the movement and the entire symphony to a compelling conclusion. The audience received this with joyful and lengthy enthusiasm and were rewarded with an orchestral encore, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, a splendid example of Chailly’s current exploration of Beethoven, which will result in a recorded cycle later this year, I believe. The orchestra’s massive dynamic range and marked individuality of color supported Chailly’s personal, but hardly eccentric view of a central classic.

One might criticise the repertory of the Gewandhaus tour as cautious and overly familiar, especially after Berlin and Vienna brought us such thoughtfully curated programs. The Chopin Concerto was indeed something of a throw-away, especially without Nelson Freire, and one might well ask whether we really need to hear Dvorák’s New World Symphony, Brahms’ Second, and Beethoven’s Seventh yet again, when Maestro Chailly has such a unique flair for unfamiliar repertoire. On the other hand, on this occasion, Chailly’s Brahms and Beethoven were very much worth hearing.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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