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A London Summer with Huntley DentMusic

BBC Proms 67 and 69: The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly

Riccardo Chailly.
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Riccardo Chailly.
Riccardo Chailly. 

Prom 67 – September 1
Mendelssohn –
Overture ‘Ruy Blas’
Violin Concerto in E minor, Nikolai Znaider, violin
Overture ‘The Fair Melusine’
Symphony No. 5 in D major, ‘Reformation’

Prom 69 – September 2
Messiaen – Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Mahler – Symphony No. 6 in A minor

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly, conductor

Rocky road.  Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians’ pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren’t so lucky. I didn’t hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn.
Felix Mendelssohn. 

So Chailly was putting their best foot forward when he brought the Gewandhaus to the Proms for an all-Mendelssohn evening. A small complement took the stage, since Mendelssohn’s orchestration is rarely larger than what Haydn used in his London symphonies, just the usual strings and double winds and brass. Ah, but the sound he got out of it! The opening number, the once popular but now rarely heard Ruy Blas Overture, told us what the story would be all evening: polished, rounded playing with nimble, sweet strings and souffles of gossamer textures. It was distressing to me that the composer’s bicentennial year in 2009 raised the question in some music columns, “Is Mendelssohn a great composer?” A more accurate version would be, “Is Mendelssohn still a great composer?”

By every measure he was considered great for 150 years after his premature death in 1847, and the qualities that make him unique ring true today. Good Christian though he was and a favorite of Queen Victoria, Mendelssohn contradicted the oppressive Victorian era with his unmatchable lightness of being. Bliss bubbles up everywhere in his best works, like the Violin Concerto, which filled out the first half of the Prom program (I mistyped “Prim,” which will also do). The superbly musical Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider played the concerto as freshly as one imagines it, and Chailly brought out the same merry innocence — not a bar sounded routine.

The second half wasn’t so fortunate. We got another overture, The Fair Melusine (a Beecham favorite that seems to have disappeared when he did), which has a striking beginning, as does Ruy Blas, but then dissipates its energies in noodling counterpoint and repetition. (Maybe that’s the key to their lack of popularity.) Too bad that Chailly didn’t apply the extra force and imagination required for lift-off in the “Reformation” Symphony no. 5. The score, which tries for something highly improbable — Lutheran excitement — has long stretches of the solemn gentleman and short ones of the brilliant youth in Mendelssohn’s character. The reading was as respectable as a vicar’s chasuble, sorry to say.

* * *

In some quarters Chailly’s name is linked with Gustav Mahler’s, as one would expect from the former music director of the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Europe’s most distinguished Mahler orchestra, not excepting Vienna, where the poison of anti-semitism created a long barren stretch after Mahler died. When Chailly arrived in Leipzig in 2005, the orchestra could expect a Mahler renaissance. In their second Proms concert this hope was tested by programming the huge, turbulent Sixth Symphony. Now that the Gewandhaus contains many young faces and plays with great exuberance, I crossed my fingers.

All went well in the formidable opening work, Messiaen’s enigmatic Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, a work for massed winds and exotic percussion whose granite blocks of sound remind me of Mayan ruins (I’ll admit to an allergy toward Messiaen’s mystical Catholic titles — they generally bear no resemblance to the pagan ritual that usually follows). The composer invented his own eccentric sound world by the mid-Forties and parlayed it into epic scores that recombine familiar elements: twittering tropical birdsong and Javanese tuned gongs for the liquid side; crashing Chinese tam-tam and blocks of strident brass for the occasional avalanche. There is usually remarkable stasis, as solid as the side of a bus, and slithery chromaticism, like grass snakes underfoot.

Et exspecto is undeniably an experience. It contrasts the most extreme brazen loudness with low rumblings from Middle Earth, timed silent pauses between movements (filled with energetic coughing at the Proms), heavily saturated chords from the purple -black end of the spectrum, and more than a hint of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments in its ritualized mournfulness. Chailly is a committed modernist — it’s one of the things that made him less than winsome to the conservatives in Amsterdam — and he led the work with assurance. However, when you’ve heard the Boston Symphony. play Et exspecto to raise the hair on the back of your neck, the Leipzig rendition was small goosebumps.

I felt much the same about the Mahler Sixth. Contrary to his meticulous Decca recording, Chailly now leads the work like a man being chased down the street. He moves both arms in big sweeping gestures, and the music rushes impatiently along without nuance, pause, affection, or subtlety. The world of fin de siecle Vienna was turned into an East German industrial site.  I found myself mystified, given Chailly’s reputation for Mahler. Balances were crude and haphazard. The orchestra did their best, even when the tempo for the Scherzo was so fast as to seem zany. But the first trumpet was sour, the woodwinds sorely tried, and only a few soloists in best form, the superb timpanist standing out. Because Chailly plowed thorough the Sixth without seeming to care, neither did I. The audience, as expected, greeted the performance like some kind of resurrection. I came away less hopeful about Leipzig’s future than when I walked in.

Huntley Dent

About Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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