Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly – Beethoven Symphony Cycle at Barbican Hall – 3: Symphonies 8 & Eroica + Colin Matthews

Colin Matthews
Grand Barcarolle [UK premiere]
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 1 November, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Riccardo Chailly. Photograph: Gert MothesThe Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly are in the last week of a month-long project playing Beethoven’s nine symphonies plus five commissioned reflections on Beethoven – not only in Leipzig but also Vienna and, dovetailing with London, Paris (that’s where they’ve been since the second concert at the Barbican).

The Leipzigers’ forebears, back in 1825 and 1826 were probably the first ever orchestra to perform all Beethoven’s symphonies in a cycle (and while the composer was alive), so their engagement with this music is second to none. As previous reports from this Barbican series and the associated CD release on Decca have chorused, theirs is a refreshingly spirited approach to Beethoven, giving the composer the benefit of the doubt over his metronome markings and looking to period-instrument practice (though not period instruments – Chailly uses red-blooded modern horns and trumpets – and doesn’t exclusively ask his timpanist to use hard sticks).

What I couldn’t tell was the editions used. It certainly didn’t look like Jonathan Del Mar’s Bärenreiter version; indeed Chailly’s red, hard-backed score for the Eighth Symphony looked really rather scruffy, indicating an older edition. Yes the timings are quick – Beethoven Eight over in 23 minutes, the ‘Eroica’ dispatched in under 45. But Chailly never sounds hasty for haste’s sake; what he does is inspire a thoroughly Beethovenian sense of propulsion.

This was most exhilarating in the Eighth; midway through the first movement Chailly whipped up the development so strongly that it surpassed even the triple-beat surge that is the opening movement of the ‘Eroica’. The Eighth punched well above its normally assumed weight to prove itself a monumental work even in within its diminutive time-span. Chailly eked out orchestral colour and timbre – basses stage-right behind the first violins – at every turn, and we were spurred into the interval on a high of virtuoso playing. So, curiously, the opening movement of the ‘Eroica’ felt rather controlled in comparison; not that the playing was any less virtuosic, and Chailly’s conception less convincing, it was just that the Eighth was the more surprising.

It was the Eighth also that inspired Colin Matthews’s Grand Barcarolle. I liked his idea of writing a slow movement for the Eighth as Beethoven had forgotten to write one, and he opted only for four horns instead of two and the addition of a contrabassoon in the most modest increase of personnel. Also noting that Beethoven never composed a barcarolle of his own (but if he had it would have been a grand one!), Matthews’s 15-minute piece is a rather dark and sonorous evocation (to me at least) of a slowly moving mass of water, with a constant swell passed across the orchestral forces, until the music dies away in an insistent throb of double basses and contrabassoon. I was put in mind of Nicholas Maw’s Odyssey. I hope Grand Barcarolle will have an independent existence. The Leipzigers played it with as much conviction as they did the Beethoven.

  • Series continues on 2 & 3 November
  • Barbican

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