Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Symphony No.7

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 10 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

More Mahler! At least it was the relative Cinderella that is Symphony No.7, which Riccardo Chailly brought to the Barbican Hall a few years ago with his Amsterdam forces. He’s now the new man at the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Opera. This 90-minute performance was a long haul and became increasingly frustrating. Some of this total was taken up by tuning, which was reasonable enough, and some by Chailly only beginning each movement when he was good and ready. The trouble was he looked like a man trying to be authoritative and the pauses were hollow.

When conducting Chailly semaphored, sign-posted and drew graphic attention to every note, colour, nuance and quirk of scoring; he also drew attention to himself, to an unflattering degree. He certainly knows every note of this symphony, and he was determined that every sound should be heard; but there was no substance behind such objective revealing, save as a lecture on Mahler’s orchestration. If Chailly sees this work – in theory, a dark-to-light piece – as a vast concerto for orchestra, then this was a literally brilliant account.

In terms of humanity and history, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded a shadow of its former self (to contemporary listeners, this means the tenures of Kurt Masur and Herbert Blomstedt). Here, these wonderful orchestral musicians did Chailly’s bidding with customary dedication, commitment and skill, but with little inspiration; but then Chailly’s domination and his micro-managing of every single event allowed little room for individual input other than the musicians acting as faithful servants. Thus the trombones had only one line – hot-knife-through-butter attack – and the brass collectively was sometimes too loud and edgy; this was, regrettably, a blend and balance that has lost some culture; that said, there was certainly dynamic variety (sometimes arresting), some half-lights, engaging sotto voce measures, and the occasional, magical, diminuendo. Ten, left-positioned, double basses added a smooth line and very emphatic accents and the strings as a whole had bloom and warmth of tone.

While Chailly enjoyed himself parading his range of gestures – which might have been too controlling even for an average school orchestra (but this is a great orchestra) – Mahler’s very specific world of water, forests, love, ghoulish spectres and triumphant pageant went for nothing, or less, with limited perspectives (the latter partly the Barbican Hall). It was quite amusing to think of the flack Pierre Boulez takes for his conducting of this work; compared with Chailly he seems lackadaisical, loving and brimful of imagery.

At least Chailly hasn’t abandoned the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s antiphonal violins; and if Chailly’s obsessive if suffocating attention to detail, every note scrubbed clean, was initially interesting, by halfway through the first movement this clinical approach had sunk the crucial forward flow that this music needs (and even reminded of Otto Klemperer’s slow-motion recording!). And it didn’t recover; how tiresome the guitar and mandolin became in ‘Nachtmusik II’; given the spot-lit projection of detail (again, a peculiarity of the Hall), there was little of the night here or earlier. Yet the stopwatch (such an unreliable guide to what actually happened) reported, for those interested in such things, movement timings of 25, 16, 10, 15 and 18 minutes (add 6 more minutes, then, for between-movement breaks); nothing really startling there, but each movement dragged, and each palled and became increasingly insignificant. The dance rhythms of the finale were leaden … Leonard Bernstein knew what this movement was about; he brought a nudge and a wink to it, an inside knowledge.

For most of its duration, this symphony has rarely sounded so empty, or the finale – here joyless and sabotaged by gratuitous pauses and rallentandos and thunderous address – so sectional and pointless. Fantastic orchestration though and Chailly’s microscopically studied and fastidious preparation of it was undeniably impressive in terms of ‘orchestral theatre’, so too the unimpeachable playing by his orchestra. And his may be the key word; rarely has a conductor dominated to such an extent, and applied so much, but with such diminishing returns.

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