Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly – Beethoven Symphony Cycle at Barbican Hall – 1: Symphonies 2 & 5 + Boccadoro

Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Ritratto di musico [UK premiere]
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 25 October, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Barbican Hall. Photograph: Mark AllanThe way the woodwinds sailed blithely into the introduction of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, as though without a care in the world, set up those elements of surprise, expectancy and subversion of familiarity that will surely infuse every last capillary of the Beethoven symphonies in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly’s Barbican Hall residency and Decca recording.

Chailly didn’t deviate from his tautly classical reading of the Second. The first and second violins placed antiphonally at the front, double basses behind the first violins, with cellos and violas in the middle ensured a bright, tactile core sound with vibrato kept on a short rein. The horns’ modern-period-style timbre was complemented by superbly and unselfconsciously characterised woodwinds. Even for those who think they know the score, this Second must have at least flirted with revelation, as these virtuoso musicians played pass-the-parcel with thematic detail, then seamlessly regrouping to emphasise some crucial rhythmic point, with Chailly admitting in the first movement the possibility of climactic knocking-on-heaven’s-door rapture but wisely not overplaying his hand. The pastoral mood of the briskly animated Larghetto was nudged forward by some subtly assertive bass control, with a wealth of colour you wouldn’t believe existed from the printed score. The scherzo continued to make the point rather more vigorously with some assertive inflections of texture. In the finale Chailly gave us some idea of what it might have been like for audiences two centuries ago getting to grips with a composer obsessed with connectivity as much as he was with relishing pushing the newly and vastly expanded boundaries of piano and forte.

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Barbican Hall. Photograph: Mark AllanEach of the five Barbican concerts includes a new work composed in response to a particular symphony. Carl Boccadoro was not backward in coming forward with his Ritratto di musico (Portrait of the musician) that pondered the Fifth, and is as much a portrait of Boccadoro as it is of Beethoven. Initially, the extended riffing on the famous Fifth motto threatened to outstay its welcome, but then there started a long process of coalescence as melodic fragments bedded themselves in, and the moments of Mahlerian isolation reminded us of the now-huge distance separating Boccadoro, and us, from his source of inspiration. There were hints of rough humour, set in context by the process of disintegration of the closing pages that dimmed the lights on this portrait.

The more expansive sound of Ritratto stayed in place for the Fifth, in which Chailly not only exposed us to the sonic radiation of almost too much information in terms of detail and colour but also made us sit up and marvel at how the grandest gesture is now inseparable from the smallest cell of notes. In other hands this degree of cogency can become hectoring, but Chailly and his superlative players were in total command of the symphony’s emotional range in a performance that made compelling sense of its size and structure, that made the finale’s blast of trombones and brilliance of the gleefully over-the-top piccolo both inevitable and astonishing. Most thrilling of all, though, was the coda that slipped into the sort of Olympian hyper-drive that is impossible to resist, that inhabits you. You think you know Beethoven? Well, think again.

  • Series continues on Wednesday 26 October
  • Barbican

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