Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly – Beethoven Symphony Cycle at Barbican Hall – 2: Symphonies 1 & 7 + Schleiermacher

Bann. Bewegung. Mit Beethovens Erster [UK premiere]
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 26 October, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Riccardo Chailly. Photograph: Gert MothesLike women’s hemlines, fashions in Beethoven performance are cyclic. At the moment big-band Beethoven is back, but with a dash of authenticity. Complete cycles of the symphonies should always be ‘an event’. This one is. With the sequence of concerts also in Leipzig, Vienna, Paris and London and the simultaneous launch of a recorded cycle – complete with dramatic cover photo of the genial Riccardo Chailly looking improbably like the grumpy Beethoven – this must be a marketing man’s dream. As with Karajan’s first Berlin Beethoven cycle, rather than releasing the symphonies one by one, Decca has the courage to issue the cycle as a boxed set.

The idea of commissioning satellite Beethoven-related works for each programme is an odd one but understandable given Chailly’s long-standing commitment to contemporary music. As Steffen Schleiermacher put it, it would be ridiculous to compose something “in the style of” Beethoven and the alternative would be “simply to write the best possible piece and dedicate it to the great composer.”

Schleiermacher’s inelegantly titled homage to Beethoven’s First Symphony (it is scored for the same forces) translates as “Stasis. Movement. With Beethoven’s First”. However, whereas Robert Simpson’s symphonies frequently took Beethoven’s structural processes and underlying energy as their point of departure, Schleiermacher’s piece – a substantial 15-minute offering – seems to skirt the issue and draw its inspiration from virtually everybody else, with echoes of Nielsen’s Symphony No.3 (Espansiva) at the opening and Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise later. At least it enabled us to appreciate the superb quality of the LGO’s double bass section and its outstanding first horn.

A great deal of nonsense is written about each successive Beethoven cycle as commentators strive to establish a new take. The performer too invariably feels it incumbent on them to have something fresh and significant to say. Generally this seems to involve using the latest research, taking Beethoven’s metronome markings at face value or having some concept or other rather than nine separate symphonies. Thankfully, Chailly’s approach has something in common with Toscanini’s – who once pooh-poohed the notion that the ‘Eroica’ had anything to do with Napoleon or Hitler and said that for him it was simply Allegro con brio.

In this superbly played First symphony there was no hint of the metaphysical, just a pulsating brio and barely disguised wit. When it came to writing a symphony Brahms may have thought that stepping into Beethoven’s shoes was a serious business but on the evidence of this firecracker of a performance Beethoven had his tongue firmly in his cheek. Seldom has Beethoven sounded more like Rossini on speed, the so-called Minuet flashing by like the countryside viewed from a high-speed train and the finale rambunctious in its unbuttoned vigour.

Just as impressive was the gloriously unfussy account of the Seventh, speeds fast but cannily chosen and with minimal slowing for the trio. Chailly employs a full string section but eschews doubled wind. He also encourages trumpets and timpani (hard sticks) to maximum force with results which can be quite abrasive and occasionally causing balance problems. Imagine Toscanini’s famous pre-war Beethoven 7 (New York Philharmonic) – lithe, tensile, cantabile – transliterated into the 21st-century and one is somewhere near the mark. As an Italian Chailly seems to have an innate empathy with markings such as dolce – to wit the Allegretto’s beautifully characterised second subject – and an understanding of Beethoven’s all-important distinctions between forte, fortissimo and sforzato (Not often can the fff marking at the close of the finale registered to more seismic effect). The commitment and polish of the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s playing was astounding.

  • Series continues on 1, 2 & 3 November
  • Barbican

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