Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Barbican, review: 'a performance full of thrills'

Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig conducted by Riccardo Chailly with pianist was Maria João Pires at the Barbican
Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig conducted by Riccardo Chailly with pianist was Maria João Pires at the Barbican Credit: Mark Allan

Sometimes it takes a while for the greatness of a performance to reveal itself. Sometimes it seizes you by the scruff of the neck, right from the off.

This concert from the great symphony orchestra of Leipzig was one of the latter sort. The first thing we heard was the excitable upward leap on the violins that launches Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Don Juan. It had a purely visceral thrill, as if some unseen hand had pressed the ejector button on our seats.

Visceral thrills are not what we associate with this venerable orchestra. It has a depth of tradition reflected in an awe-inspiring list of first performances, and a sound of many-layered subtlety. Compared to it the Berlin Philharmonic is a Johnny-come-lately. The orchestra gave first performances of so many masterworks by 19th century composers, and can trace a history right back to Bach’s day (and indeed still provides the instrumental music in Bach’s own church, just a stone’s throw from the orchestra’s home).

Unobtrusive mastery: the Leipzig Gewandhaus's musical director Riccardo Chailly Credit: Mark Allan

But this performance was full of thrills, which was exactly right for a piece that celebrates literature’s most famous seducer. Pure lust for life shone out from every bar. The violins projected an immense tone even at the very top of their range, where many violin sections can sound pinched. The triumphal horn call which came later made one’s skin prickle, and the luxuriant tangle of detail in the woodwinds had a richly sensuous appeal.

One tone-poem from Richard Strauss would be intoxicating enough, but the orchestra is making a feature of Strauss on this London residency. So after the interval we had another: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Strauss’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of himself. Here the unobtrusive mastery of the orchestra’s musical director Riccardo Chailly was even more apparent. The hero’s triumphal progress is full of unexpected reversals, usually brought on by beastly music critics parodied musically by ponderous tubas and nit-picking oboes. Chailly made these silences cavernous and weighty, and gave a humorous edge to the hero’s encounter with his imperious lady-love, impersonated with splendid haughtiness on the violin by the orchestra’s leader Frank-Michael Erben.

The orchestra alternately pleaded and insisted, in a passage that really needs the editor’s red pen (though some might say it’s simply being true to Pauline, Strauss’s formidable wife, who was not the easiest person to win over).  By the time we reached the radiant and perfectly tuned chords at the end, it felt as if the piece had soared over its own limitations. It seemed a real masterpiece, which shows that these musicians really are miracle-workers.

Tucked between these two rollicking effusions, like a Meissen pastry-dish between two stormy romantic canvases, was Mozart’s last piano concerto. It was a cunning ploy, to remind us this orchestra does subtlety as well as it does intoxication, and it worked.

It was a strikingly smaller orchestra on stage, but often the string section was reduced down still further, to a mere handful of players. However, there was nothing precious about the performance, and none of the resigned glow some performers aim for, in the sentimental belief Mozart knew his end was nigh. Here, finally, we were shown what a refined sound the Leipziger’s woodwind players make, when not fighting Strauss’s noisy brass, and how they can be precise and soft-edged at the same time.

As for the soloist Maria João Pires, she played with a perfectly turned grace that had a vein of steel underneath. In the middle of the 1st movement, where Mozart makes the strangest harmonic move in his entire output, she found a special tone, veiled and aloof. It was beyond moving, like the enigmatic smile on a Greek statue’s face.

The Barbican residency of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra continues until Friday 23rd October. 020 7638 8891; barbican.org.uk