Photo, Mark Allan/Barbican

Monday, May 9, 2022
Barbican Hall, London
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

The Gewandhausorchester Leipzig came to the Barbican in October 2015 to give three concerts, each featuring Richard Strauss tone poems and a Mozart Concerto, with its then outgoing music director, Riccardo Chailly (so potent do those performances remain in my memory that it hardly seems seven years have passed). The ensemble returns now for a pair of Barbican concerts under Chailly’s successor Andris Nelsons, solely performing Strauss on this occasion, overlapping to some extent with the repertoire of their earlier triptych.

This concert opened with a hefty, powerful account of the seldom heard Macbeth (1886, revised 1888). After the monumental opening fanfare (like a stray, but swifter, fragment from Bruckner’s Ninth) Nelsons sustained a brooding, foreboding mood in this résumé of Shakespeare’s tragic, violent play. Even the thunderous climaxes were not simply majestic but shot through with something cataclysmic; whilst the section that seems to be associated with Lady Macbeth avoided a straightforward wash of seductive-sounding harmonies but was cloying with a sinister intent, as were the slithery bassoons, slinking around the processional pomp of Duncan’s arrival. If the thematic material is not the most memorable of Strauss’s tone poems (his first essay in the genre, in his mid-twenties, that is not surprising) this performance demonstrated it to be an accomplished work in other ways, worthy of more frequent outings.

The GOL brought similar weight to the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Initially that sounded excessive as the heroic horns (with a few weak notes) and delirious playing laid on the Marschallin and Octavian’s amorous encounter rather too thickly (though the Schwung of the graphic climax brought some wit) and the portentous arrival of Octavian heralded a rather unyielding, stiff depiction of his ‘presentation of the rose’ to Sophie. The orchestra’s robust performance better suited the appearance of the galumphing Baron Ochs in his waltz – even as the players demonstrated some ironic levity in the delicate textures of its leaping motif. And it proved yet more blistering in the waltz’s repeat at the conclusion, though the oboe and violins did not quite cut it in replicating the exquisite interplay of high voices for the celebrated ‘Trio’, however sensitively performed.

Nelsons’s compellingly earnest account of Ein Heldenleben (1898) lacked the humour of Chailly’s interpretation in 2015 by not having the same nimble energy and razor-sharp precision in ensemble. The opening theme rather limbered up the arpeggio, emphasising each note rather than sweeping upwards effortlessly, and the ‘Hero at Battle’ sequence was strenuous (though undoubtedly impressive in execution) instead of ironic. The restatement of the principal heroic melody after that tussle had the breadth of hard-won victory, looking ahead to the similarly expansive, magisterial theme at the summit of the Alpensinfonie. The magnificent, truly middle-European blend of the GOL’s woodwind and brass ensured that the performance was by no means heavy-handed. After the flourish of the opening subject, the polyphonic interweaving of melodies was lucid, aided by antiphonal violins. If Andreas Buschatz’s violin depicting the Hero’s companion was more playful than enchanting, the orchestra’s responses on behalf of the Hero were warmly resonant, creating an almost mystical dialogue between the two, rather than sensuous. The GOL’s richly blended timbre made for a glowing resignation in the conclusion, as deeply Schopenhauerian as anything in Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal.

Whatever the performance lacked in irony and comedy was more than compensated for with the moving sincerity and profundity of what it expressed in its longer vision, coming closer to the more overtly philosophical discursus or spiritual journey of Also sprach Zarathustra, that will constitute the climax of Part II of this Project, tonight.