Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Symphony No.10 [Performing Version of Mahler’s draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews]

Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano)

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: 7 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mendelssohn wrote his First Piano Concerto in 1831 during a visit to Munich, part of an extended tour of Europe and the British Isles that also saw the composition of the ‘Italian’ Symphony. The concerto is dedicated to the pianist Delphine von Schauroth, who had caught the composer’s eye the previous year and was no doubt the inspiration for the beguilingly tender central Andante.

If the interpretation of this movement by Palestinian-Israeli pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar tended more towards adagio, it was nonetheless a spellbinding performance, the feeling of dreamy romanticism engendered by an imaginative use of rubato and a marvellously sensitive accompaniment from horn, woodwinds and strings. At the start of the concerto, Ashkar had seemed a little reticent, almost overshadowed by the large string section (six double basses here) fielded by the orchestra, but soon upped the involvement factor to deliver the outer movements with pace, accuracy and flair. The articulation of the strings section was especially impressive in the finale.

During the performance of Mahler 10, I wondered if I was still listening to the same conductor and orchestra, so great was the contrast in musical involvement and, all too often, quality of execution. The Leipzig violas’ delivery of the symphony’s opening Andante bars was suitably arresting, but the Adagio which followed lacked intensity and impetus, the orchestra’s impressive violins undermined by some unhelpfully imprecise playing from the horns. The movement’s dissonant climax was delivered with weight and power, topped by a superb sustained high A from the first trumpet, and yet somehow remained uninvolving, and the long breathed coda was cool rather than wistful.

The symphony as a whole seemed to cause ongoing problems for the horns, one player even delivering several bars of wrong material in the second movement, and the trumpets had intonation problems as well as often being too loud. More serious, however, was a general lack of tension, significant passages such as the searing crescendos at the heart of the ‘Purgatorio’ or the huge climaxes of the second scherzo passing without any sense of excitement or drama.

The finale offered compensation in terms of a beautifully rendered account of the flute solo near the beginning and a noble rendition of the trumpet solo later, as well as some marvellously rapt string-playing towards the end. An oddity, however, was that the single drum beats normally heard at the start of the movement were replaced by triple beats. In her biography “Memories and Letters”, Alma Mahler describes how this segment of the symphony was inspired by the muffled drumbeat that Mahler heard in 1908 at the funeral of a New York fireman. Whatever the reason for this variation to the text of Cooke’s performing edition, it did nothing to illuminate a disappointing performance.

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