Even Nelsons’s miscalculations are fascinating: Leipzig Gewandhaus/Andris Nelsons, at the Barbican, reviewed

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

Leipzig Gewandhaus/Nelsons

Barbican Hall

Imagine growing up with a whole orchestra as your plaything. Richard Strauss’s father was the principal horn of the Munich Opera, and doting relatives funded publication of the teenage Richard’s earliest compositions. At the age of 19 he was assistant conductor of the Court Orchestra in Meiningen, and had rather got used to having world-class musicians at his command. It was the spirit of the age in fin-de-siècle Central Europe, a time and a place where it was perfectly normal for an opera house to have 16 spare horn players hanging around to play offstage effects, where conductors derived their authority from royalty and if (as Alma Mahler describes) the Maestro wished to hear Brahms’s Horn Trio, he’d simply summon the necessary players to his suite and give them their orders. If Strauss’s early tone poems sound a bit cocksure, there’s your pop-psychological explanation, right there.

There’s also – of course – the small matter of genius which, when you’re listening to Andris Nelsons conducting Strauss with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, isn’t so much a footnote as a flashing neon Tracey Emin headline. Full disclosure: I first heard Nelsons conduct in September 2007 and since that moment I’ve been convinced that he comes as close to the G-word as any living performer. We’re not talking here about the stuff of hair-splitting reviews, or (God help us) ‘definitive’ interpretations. During the seven years that he was technically my boss, I don’t think any of my colleagues would have described Nelsons as an intellectual. But the man just breathed music, in the way that you imagine Mozart or Schubert must have done. Orchestral sound was his element. Put him in front of 100 musicians and he was like an otter in a mountain stream – all the while channelling the geological instinct for long-range form that has made him one of the supreme Wagnerians of the 21st century. Even his miscalculations were fascinating.

So on one level, Strauss and Nelsons are made for each other, sharing that same boundless, boyish glee in the sound of a massive orchestra at the peak of its virtuosity. And, of course, its power. Filling the Barbican stage, and with the basses lined up like a rampart behind the first violins, the Gewandhausorchester is an expressive machine of overwhelming precision and might. A few weeks ago at the Barbican we heard the chestnut and bronze glow of the Czech Philharmonic, but the colours of the Gewandhaus are more like gunmetal and blue steel. The strings have a satin, rather than a gloss, sheen and the denser, darker colours underpin everything. There’s a muscularity about this orchestra that could feel forbidding in the hands of a less spontaneous conductor. Bass clarinet, trombones and horns coiled smoothly through the texture, glistening with oil; the timpanist’s cadences went off like demolition charges (there weren’t many pianissimos in this concert).

Now imagine all that applied to Strauss’s Macbeth, a suite from Der Rosenkavalier and Ein Heldenleben and you can probably picture the splendour of the sound – the dissonant onslaught of the battle sequence in Heldenleben, or the way the horns swung their countermelody around their heads and then sent it spinning off into the stars at the climax of the final Rosenkavalierwaltz. You might have more trouble with the less inspired (and certainly less familiar) Macbeth, and for Nelsons, presented with an orchestra as potent as this one, the urge to play it on turbo must have been overwhelming. Macbethwould probably benefit from some refinement of colour, but we got broad strokes and thick black outlines. Heldenleben is a different proposition, and the sweep of the opening paragraphs was tremendous. But when it came to the big love scene, you got the impression that the solo violin’s flirtatious advances (and the concertmaster Sebastian Breuninger was clearly very up for it indeed) were of less interest to Nelsons than the (admittedly luscious) sounds he was drawing from the rest of the orchestra.

As for the Rosenkavalier suite – well, the curious thing is that Nelsons conducts the opera with such iridescent grace, but treats this ham-fisted concert medley so stickily: overegging climaxes, stretching rubato like Silly Putty and generally acting as if he’s finally free to indulge all the slightly disreputable little urges that his innate artistry keeps suppressed in the opera house. Oh well: if it feels good, do it, I suppose. It was a heck of a concert (it could hardly have been otherwise with these performers). But when you’ve got a composer and a conductor whose shared instinct is to run off the leash, and an orchestra that (clearly) can do anything, it’s possible that they might – once in a while – forget that there’s an audience in the room. Spare a thought for us non-geniuses: we’d like to share the fun too.

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