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In Beethoven, Classical Music, Review on November 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Review: Grand Baracolle Premiere (Colin Matthews, 2011) & Symphonies No. 3 “Eroica” and No. 8 (Beethoven)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig & Ricardo Chailly.
Barbican, Tuesday 1 November 2011.

Having listened to Chailly & the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig’s complete CD edition of the Beethoven symphonies almost to the exception of anything else since I purchased them a few weeks ago, the expectation for their performance at the Barbican was incredibly high.

And neither me nor the rest of the audience were disappointed.

So far the cycle has been well received and I think that their performance of the Third and Eighth symphonies – while I cannot speak personally of the past or for future performances – will be among the strongest in the whole cycle at the Barbican.

As part of the cycle tour, Chailly commissioned a series of contemporary composers to write pieces based or inspired by Beethoven’s symphonies. This is an incredibly smart idea – it connects Beethoven’s symphonies with the modern world in a very direct way, reminds us that – in his own time – Beethoven was a revolutionary and additionally underlines the musicianship of the Gewandhausorchester itself. The concert programme recounts that Chailly only told the five composers – Carlo Boccadoro, Steffen Schleiermacher, Colin Matthews, Bruno Mantovani and Friedrich Cerha – which symphonies would be programmed alongside their own pieces and left them to draw – or not – their inspiration from that.

This particular concert opened with the premiere of Colin Matthews’ Grand Baracolle. The programme talked of inspiration not only from the Eighth Symphony but also about parallels with Mahler. To be honest, I didn’t quite get the references to Mahler – I was more reminded of Vaughan-Williams, Shostakovich and even, at time – and this may just have been transference from the expectation of hearing the Eroica – of Strauss’ Metamorphosen. But Mahler? Not really.

Colin Matthews approach was one of sonorities. The opening, dark and heavy created – as I have already said – a sound world that was for me more Vaughan-Williams or Shostakovich than Mahler. There wasn’t a translucence or transparency to the writing that I associate even with the more heavily orchestrated parts of Mahler. Rhythmically there were nods to a ‘Baracolle’ but those expecting a more lilting piece would have been disappointed. Matthews contrasted the more intense blocks of sound with delicate wind writing and lighter scored strings that were a definite nod to the second movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Overall Grand Baracolle was an original composition, well-crafted and by limiting himself only to a ‘Beethoven’ orchestra, Matthews deliberately created a direct link to what followed.

And what followed was magnificent.

Chailly showed himself to be an incredibly observant conductor in the Matthews, but in the Beethoven he sprang into life and motion.

Beethoven’s Eight is often referred to as his most ‘Haydnesque’ symphony alongside the Fourth. Clearly there are parallels but ‘Haydnesque’ is then interpreted by many as meaning ‘polite’ or ‘measured’, but what is often neglected is the humour and ‘earthiness’ of Haydn’s music and in particular his symphonies. Reminiscing once again about my university lecturer, he told us that modern day audiences had lost the art of listening to the humour in Haydn’s symphonies. In the Eighteenth Century audiences would have reacted more overtly to the humour in his symphonies and would have been more sensitive to the less overt ones that audiences today react to.

At the Barbican, Chailly and the players brought out not only the humour in Beethoven’s Eighth but also a ‘ruddiness’ in the music. This was no ‘slight’ symphony between the Seventh and the Ninth for Chailly. Far from it, they championed a more vigorous and muscular interpretation so much so that at times it seemed that the orchestra might run away with itself. But Chailly not only kept absolutely control but was a master of bringing out the individual details in every movement of the symphony – and in particular the specific details in the double bass line that are often overlooked. And Chailly clearly pointed up the humour throughout, particularly in the beautifully played second movement.

However the Third Symphony was especially memorable. Again the muscularity and energy of the performance was breathtaking and the ensemble playing was superlative.

Chailly took the first movement at breakneck speed (although perhaps a literal fraction slower that the recording?) but never sacrificed the interior detailing and lyricism of the movement for speed. Indeed there was an anger, almost a ’rudeness’ to the playing that was exhilarating – ‘con brio’ quite literally.

The Marcia Funebre had an emotional intensity rarely delivered in a live performance and before raising his baton Chailly seemed to take more than a moment to prepare himself, the orchestra and the audience. There were moments of crushing emotion. The Scherzo was all lightness of touch rather than spun out at speed. Yet as in the recording, Chailly created a real sense of inexorable momentum into the closing bars.

However, it was the Finale that was – to coin a phrase – truly ‘promethean’. Again Chailly’s pointing up of detail was immaculate. The string sections’ pizzicati was markedly aggressive yet never over-balanced the delicate scoring in the opening sections.

Indeed, of all the symphonies the Eroica is counterpoint-heavy compared to the other eight. Yet throughout Chailly maintained a clarity of the inner voices which ensured that the counterpoint shone through – for example the clarity in the opening of the development section of the first movement as well as in the second movement was crystalline.

And the timpanist? I still don’t know if it was Matthias Müller or Tom Greenleaves but once again the playing was superlative and they deserved the especial cheer at the end of the evening.

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