Matthews, Beethoven: Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.11.11 (Gdn)
Colin Matthews: Grand Barcarolle
Beethoven: Symphony no.8
Beethoven: Symphony no.3
Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra are one of the great musical collaborations of our time. That's hardly a contentious view, but working out exactly why their chemistry works is surprisingly tricky. There is definitely an element of contrast in the relationship between his passionate Italian approach and the orchestra's Germanic discipline. Chailly clearly exploits the virtuosity of the instrumentalists for his own interpretive ends. But there is obviously a deep mutual respect here, and a shared passion for the core Austro-German repertoire.
Chailly's interpretations are always radical, or at least unconventional. Perhaps the collaboration with the orchestra seems so close because the audience are continually being surprised by the interpretive decisions, while the players are always in on his ideas. And while Chailly likes to do things differently, he rarely takes the music to extremes. These performances were characterised by continuous intensity, and there were surprisingly few pianissimos or moments of respite of any sort. Sometimes that can feel excessive, especially when each movement is presented as a self-sufficient dramatic entity. But we hadn't come for background music, and Chailly ensured that every phrase was taken seriously, clearly articulated and allowed to sink in.
The orchestra's playing really is something special. There is a deep beauty to their every note, but it's not a ravishing beauty, rather an angular Teutonic beauty. The strings have astonishing unity of ensemble. They are able to play with that rich, chocolatey sound you only get in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna. But they are also able to turn that off, switching instead to a big, strident tone or a more focussed, nasal sound. Among the woodwinds, the bassoons excelled in the 8th symphony, while the oboe soloist was star of the 3rd. All the players bar the strings are playing instruments that you hardly ever meet on this side of Europe, so their distinctive timbre is at least partly a product of their technology.
Grand Barcarolle by Colin Matthews is one of a series of works commissioned by Chailly to accompany the orchestra's Beethoven cycle. On one level, the commissioning project seems hopelessly outdated: composers expected to justify their presence on orchestral programmes by presenting creative responses to the core repertoire in the second half. That sort of postmodernism has been going on at least since Berio and Schnittke in the 1970s, and there really isn't much more to say. Colin Matthews' response to Beethoven is, by his own admission, closer to Mahler. And it doesn't even sound like a postmodern response to Mahler, it just sounds like Mahler. But it fitted well into this programme, because Chailly's Beethoven is, in many ways, deeply Mahlerian. Had Matthews' work preceded anybody else's Beethoven it wouldn't have worked at all. But here it fit beautifully. And given the ability of this orchestra to imbue late Romantic textures with depths of colour and emotion, it would seem a waste to write anything else for them.
In London, long the capital of period performance orchestral playing, Chailly's Beethoven seems almost reactionary. It is as if he is reclaiming Beethoven's scores from the period instrument brigade. It probably doesn't seem that way in Leipzig, but even mainstream London orchestras tend to pay some kind of lip service to the period performance conventions: reducing the string sections, using natural trumpets, minimal vibrato etc. Chailly makes a big thing of his loyalty to the what he finds in the score, particularly the dynamics, articulations and metronome marks. But the result seems more loyal to the spirit of the music than to the letter.
In the 8th Symphony it works a treat. He makes no excuses for the curious structure of the work and whips up a storm in every movement. When the first two movements each stop abruptly without warning or explanation, Chailly is happy to place the blame squarely at the composer's feet. And for the rest of the time he enjoys the moment. The first movement is a propulsive and dance-like as that of the 7th, while the finale has the gravitas and power of the 5th's conclusion. The 8th worked better than the 3rd, and the many interpretive problems that the 8th presents seem to inspire Chailly's interpretive ideas, with more exciting and more convincing results.
But the 3rd was great too. Those punch chords at the very opening were clean and decisive, and there were plenty of other places in the first movement when ideas like that could appear out of the texture, a surprise each time, even when you know they are coming. Chailly doesn't let the music just play itself, and his tempo interventions can be sudden and counter-intuitive. But they always fit into the logic of his interpretation, and needless to say they never take the orchestra by surprise. The funeral march was astonishingly intense, this is where the solo oboe came into his own. The scherzo suffered slightly from the intensity of the two movements that preceded it: a higher level of energy and intensity were required of it, and it only just managed. And the finale was great. It occasionally approached a Brucknerian intensity towards the end. That's the real advantage of this sort of modern instrument approach, that intensity at the climaxes. But you need an orchestra who can maintain the ensemble and tonal control, even at the end of an intense concert. Not a problem, of course, for the Gewandhaus.
The great thing about the Chailly/Gewandhaus partnership is that the standard of their musicmaking transcends any problems you might have about interpretive issues. Chailly does take liberties sometimes. Using the two sticks of the timpani together in the second movement of the Eroica for example. Is that in the score? I'm sure it's not. And the many abrupt tempo changes that, on the face of it, work against the logic of the music. But these musicians create their own logic. It's emotional and intense and its just as good as Beethoven's.