Leipzig Day – 27 October

Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537
Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 654
Sonata No.6 in D minor, Op.65
Fugue ’mit sanften Stimmen’ (Six Fugues on B.A.C.H, Op.60)

Michael Schönheit (organ)

Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
String Quartet in A, Op.41/3

Gewandhaus-Quartett [Frank-Michael Erben & Conrad Suske (violins); Volker Metz (viola) & Jürnjakob Timm (cello)]

Octet in E flat, Op.20

Arzberger-Quartett [Stefan Arzberger & Susanne Hallmann (violins); Dorothea Hemken (viola) & Matthias Schreiber (cello)] &
Reinhold-Quartett [Dietrich Reinhold & Markus Pinquart (violins); Norbert Tunze (viola) & Christoph Vietz (cello)]

Die Schöne Melusine – Concert Overture, Op.32
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.30
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Alfredo Perl (piano)

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Herbert Blomstedt

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 October, 2002
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, Barbican Garden Room & Hall, London

This visit from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was more than just a concert; it was an afternoon and evening showcasing one of the oldest musical institutions – the Gewandhaus itself – its heritage and culture of such importance for today and tomorrow. The Orchestra is over 250 years old; its Court origins are even older. Bach, Mendelssohn and Schumann were all hugely influential in Leipzig. The Gewandhaus – the new hall but twenty years old – represents a musical focal point of excellence and dimension.

Travelling to the Barbican was made difficult by tempestuous weather. St Giles’s made for an oasis of calm. Following spoken introductions (including one from Leipzig’s Lord Mayor), Michael Schönheit, the Gewandhaus’s organist, gave flowing and lightly-touched renditions that helped buttress us against the elements, the only reminder being the swaying branches espied through the windows. Best was Bach’s sublime Schmücke dich that I heard with Schoenberg’s orchestration running through my mind. Least inspiring was Mendelssohn’s Sonata in which he conforms himself to skilful if anonymous invention.

The Gewandhaus Quartet then gave a sweetly lyrical, even elegant account of Schubert’s dramatic stand-alone movement in which the musicians’ interplay and lovely sound gave particular pleasure. Schumann’s final quartet was a revelation. Schumann’s patrician invention shares the sanguinity of Haydn’s last quartets. Classical poise and Romantic resolution are symbiotic, which the players delineated ideally – whether in clarity of figuration or expressional resolve. The slow movement was exquisite, the opening movement given time to express itself.

From the windswept St Giles to the modern comfort of the Barbican Centre’s Garden Room where Professors Christoph Wolff, Jürgen Ernst and Herbert Blomstedt spoke, respectively, about the Bach-Archiv, Mendelssohn-Haus/Foundation and the esteemed position of Gewandhauskapellmeister. In a nutshell, Bach “reorganised Leipzig’s musical life,” then Mendelssohn made the city one “of music” rather than “with”, and Blomstedt spoke reverentially of Leipzig’s history and tradition that means so much to him. He told of a very elderly man who approached him and announced himself as a former Gewandhaus Orchestra flautist who played for Arthur Nikisch (he died in 1922), one of Blomstedt’s predecessors. “Tell me more,” welcomed Blomstedt – one had the impression that he had spent a very happy time learning about times-past at the Gewandhaus. As Blomstedt explained, the Gewandhaus actually comprises three orchestras. With over 180 members, whose duties alternate between opera and concerts, such numbers allow both activities on the same night (unlike in Dresden where it’s one or the other). There are also weekly Bach performances at St Thomas’s Church.

The plan was then to adjourn to the Conservatory, which the inclement weather put a stop to. The Garden Room actually proved an ideal acoustic for Mendelssohn’s Octet – the sound was immediate, tonally faithfully and every note was clear. Heaven! The performance was superb. The two quartets formed from the younger generation of the Orchestra – described as a “family” by Blomstedt – more than suggest that Leipzig customs are in very safe hands for the future. What a piece Mendelssohn’s Octet is – and not just because he was only 16 when he composed it. This wonderful performance caught its high spirits and ardour; attention to blend, balance and detail was impeccable. The rapt slow movement was especially fine, and if the elfin ’Scherzo’ was poised enough if not ideally ’leggierissimo’, the players’ instincts for this masterpiece and their contemporary appreciation of it was a joy.

There was then a three-hour break until the 8 o’clock orchestral concert. Why not start at the usual 7.30? Oh, the photographers during the talk and chamber performances were a bit of a nuisance too!

When the concert did arrive, it closed “Leipzig Day” quite magnificently. That’s an understatement. There were times during the Brahms symphony when I wanted Herbert Blomstedt to stop conducting. He and the Leipzigers – the two are indivisible (Blomstedt’s contract is now extended to 2005, when he’ll be 78) – conjured something that was too good, too enlightening, too involving; the feeling of being sucked into something remarkable made for burdensome listening simply because of the demands it made. Blomstedt did nothing for its own sake – this was as musical a Brahms One as you will ever hear. Yet his microscopic attention to detail – such as double bass staccatos and pianissimo timpani ornaments that usually go for nothing – constantly caught the ear and always as a pertinent part of the fabric. Then there was his long-term approach that admitted a long line to be created without distortion. The building and releasing of tension was unerringly judged. The slow movement was a model of how fluctuations of tempo can seem natural and inevitable. The blend and balance of instrumental lines was wonderfully judged, and what character the orchestra showed, what confidence and care, what identification. And how beautiful the sound – naturally warm and translucent, nothing applied.

Without hype, a clique of ’supporters’ or an attention-seeking podium manner, Blomstedt, incisive and virile, pulled off a Brahms One that was fresh, deeply considered and utterly convincing and absorbing. Even the first movement exposition – rarely repeated and one I prefer not played – was here re-introduced with requisite interjection and intensification. Come the return of the ’motto’ in the triumphant coda, Blomstedt, against the score, broadened the pace, yet without bombast or vulgarity. When Blomstedt’s tenure is fulfilled, maybe the LGO could release a box of CDs capturing this partnership at home – everything is recorded.

Earlier, Mendelssohn’s charming overture – a prime example of the composer’s tone-painting and lucid scoring – really could not have been better done. Alfredo Perl gave a delightfully idiomatic account of the lesser-known of Mendelssohn’s two piano concertos (lovely slow movement), his mellow-sounding Bösendorfer coming into its own. Perl’s supple, shapely and affectionate playing really got inside the music (what a shame the LGO/Blomstedt Decca CD of Mendelssohn’s concertos couldn’t be with Perl rather than the pernicious Thibaudet!). As ever the LGO’s strings were ’classically’ seated – antiphonal violins, cellos left-centre, double basses behind them (but not always on Blomstedt’s Decca recordings!) – and what a difference it makes.

My only regret was missing John Lill’s afternoon recital across the River. This splendid Leipzig outing finished with a potent account of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. For the Brahms One alone it was a privilege – certainly one of my most treasured musical ’moments’ to date.

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