Photo, Tom Howard/Barbican

Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Barbican Hall, London
Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

Going to a concert given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, especially if it doesn’t happen that often, is a bit like going to the gym for the first time in ages. There I am, an unfit old fatso, goggling at the impossible perfection before me – those sleek and supple corps de ballet strings, the peerlessly toned and buffed woodwinds, tee-shirt straining brass, and – OMG – the classical Greek-deity beauty of the horns, all presided over as an ensemble of soloists with a common purpose by their guru-like Gewandhauskappellmeister Andris Nelsons. And what better to show them off than the sonic wizardry of Richard Strauss in the second of their two London concerts?

Strauss knew the nineteenth-century orchestra inside out, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus players know how to make every turn and nuance of Strauss’s orchestration count – all those instructions about string solos and chamber groupings, the woodwind banter; they all make a difference – and don’t get me started on the horns again. Strauss is ideal for showing off with, and if the hints of notes not always in synch with the showing off occasionally draw our ears towards the minutiae of perfection, the general aural canvas can’t stop seething.

This was more to the fore in the concert’s first half, yielding some gasp-inducing results in a performance of Don Juan that, from the explicitly and stunningly well-played eruptive opening bars, started as it meant to go on. Nelsons’s lordly, expansive direction delivered some mighty priapism, the sound was saturated with Technicolor glamour, and in what sounded like post-coital down-time, the quieter moments vibrated with suggestive yearning. The libertine’s demise sounded more like detumescent exhaustion than the desire for existential oblivion, but either way was played with ear-bending seductiveness.

It’s been a long while since I last heard the Burleske, in which the precocious twenty-one-year-old composer says he defers to Brahms but surely more honours Mozart. And that is what the formidable Mozart pianist Rudolf Buchbinder (replacing Yuja Wang) promoted by focusing on the music’s high polish, wit, and operatic quality. His playing was also fabulously delicate, and ultra-responsive to mercurial changes of mood and direction, with an improvisatory feel that tended to veer towards the work’s identity as a sequence of cadenzas lightly tethered to some more-solid music in between. His encore was an impressively unimpeded nocturnal tour of Vienna, the Soirée de Vienne by Alfred Grünfeld.

Following the interval, Zarathustra (and the now-thirty-one-year-old Strauss) came down from the mountain und also sprach. Perhaps pieces with a big or biggish role for organ shouldn’t be done at the Barbican, and this was one of them, although Nelsons and his double basses made up for some synthetic wheezing as well as they could at the end of the famous Sunrise opening. More importantly, the organ supplies a lofty, liturgical sweetness to other moments in the score, and here that barely registered. Never mind. Nelsons marked out the contrast between the elemental and the spiritual in a way that made Strauss and Wagner sound joined at the hip, all the while ensuring that the handling of the orchestra was at the service of Nietzsche’s and the Iranian prophet’s pronouncements. The concertmaster’s violin waltzes in the Dance Song and all the other string divisions and solos were played with a layered exuberance that just about stayed the right side of sensual, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio gathered more definition, and the work’s bitonal close kept us guessing about Strauss’s keen and ironic self-belief.

The Strauss Project Part I – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig at Barbican Hall – Andris Nelsons conducts Macbeth, Der Rosenkavalier Suite & Ein Heldenleben.