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I heard the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra several times under its then music director Kurt Masur, and each time walked away feeling more than a little disappointed. Certainly the playing was not bad; but given the orchestra's long and impressive history — it was originally established in 1781 to play Bach cantatas — I had somehow been expecting more. After all, what other orchestra can boast of Felix Mendelssohn, Arthur Nikisch, and Wilhelm Furtwangler as former music directors?
Perhaps the orchestra was too aware of its tradition. For all the unanimity and sensitivity of its playing, there was also a sense of reserve, cautiousness. To be fair, the orchestra may only have been giving Masur, a man known for his uncompromising severity and restraint, what he was asking for. But subsequent recordings under other conductors only confirmed the impression that that this once proud orchestra was wilting under the burden of its history.
When (in 2005) the volatile Riccardo Chially became music director of this most tradition-bound orchestra, I'm not sure anyone knew what to expect from such an unlikely coupling. But the stars that govern such things must have been properly aligned, for Chially has completely rejuvenated the orchestra. After the somber, controlling Masur and the terminally dull Herbert Bloomstadt (who followed him as music director), Chially has opened all the doors and windows, let a little Mediterranean light and warmth into the room. He's encouraged his musicians to take greater risks, throw caution to the wind. And based on what I've been hearing, the orchestra has responded in kind, no longer content to rest on its laurels, but eager to turn a page. Nowadays the Gewandhaus plays not only with more commitment, dynamism, and emotional urgency; but also with a richer, brighter, more varied sound than I remember. Certainly the orchestra's recent tour offered a powerful demonstration of their transformation. Alternately fierce and joyful, thrillingly played and deeply affecting, the Mahler Fifth I witnessed in Chicago was quite simply one of the greatest performances I've ever heard.
Brahms Concertos For All Seasons
For those who missed the tour, these recordings offer all the proof you'll need that something altogether magical is now happening in Leipzig. With standard repetory pieces, it's common practice to compare the newcomer to the very greatest recorded performances. But in this case, there's no need to bother. Simply put, these performances can take their place alongside the best available.
Nelson Friere might not be a familiar name, and probably only old-timers like me will remember that in the 1960's Columbia launched his career with a two-record set that included performances of the Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Grieg concertos accompanied by the esteemed Rudolph Kempe and the Munich Philharmonic. Since then he's pretty much disappeared from the scene, at least in the United States. But make no mistake about it: he's one of the great living pianists, and he handles the knuckle-busting demands of these colossal works with grace, passion, and authority.
These large-scale performances emphasize the epic character of both concertos. Tempos are on the fast side; urgent, but never hurried. In general, conductor and soloist strike a wonderful balance between intensity and expressive shaping. But what most impressed me here was how fresh-sounding Friere and Chially make these often played scores sound. Given that both are live performances (in front of amazingly quiet audiences), I guess the spontaneity and immediacy of the playing shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. But it does. Friere and Chially play this music as if it were newly minted, as if it had never been heard before.
Schumann via Mahler
Since the accompanying booklet discusses at some length exactly how and why Mahler went about "arranging" Schumann's symphonies, I'll only add that his retouchings create a leaner, lighter, more tightly focussed sound that Chially skillfully uses to bring out many previously hidden details. In that respect, it's interesting to compare Chially's Schumann Second to Christien Thieleman's DG version with the Vienna Philharmonic, for both conductors take many breathtaking turns of phrase. But with Thieleman, Schumann often sounds at a loss, a composer incapable of consecutive thought. With Chially, one marvels at the inexhaustible variety and invention of his genius. Whereas Thieleman too often drags his feet, Chially invests the music with an infectious brio, a lightness of touch that reminds me of Mendelssohn. To paraphrase Mohammed Ali, these performances "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." But I end with a caveat. Those who like their Schumann symphonies played with gravitas — dark, moody, and heavy — might not take well to these energetic, luminous interpretations. But for me (again), the freshness and spontaneity of the performances make them totally irresistible.
I first heard the Genoveva Overture played by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony at a concert over forty years ago, and the memory of that blazing performance has eclipsed every recording I've heard since — until this one. Though only eight minutes long, the Genoveva is nonetheless a substantial bonus, given the visceral excitement of the playing.
London has a long and proud history of producing superior sound that stretches from its earliest monophonic releases straight through to the digital age. So it's no surprise these recordings give us an utterly transparent high end, an extremely well defined midrange, and rock-solid bass. In fact, I've never heard Brahms' double bass writing more clearly delineated. The well nigh perfect balances let us hear the crucial sense of dialogue, of give-and-take between piano and orchestra. In short, the engineering is entirely worthy of the performances.
After all this, let me share a secret hope that at least some of the grand poohbahs who will soon be choosing the next conductor of the Chicago Symphony were in attendance for that Mahler Fifth I heard. Hey guys, given the available choices, you couldn't do better than Riccardo Chially. In the meantime, you'll just have to forgive me for envying those lucky citizens of Leipzig!
Ratings: Brahms and Schumann