The week in classical: Leipzig Gewandhaus/ Nelsons; Scottish Chamber Orchestra/ Manze | Classical music
Iimagine a hundred elite athletes running to the edge of a cliff and jumping over it, not for their loss but for an exhilarating flight. The Richard Strauss Overture Don Juan, Op 20, should sound like it, and unless disaster strikes in this most diabolical work, it usually does. In the hands of Gewandhaus Leipzig orchestra and its conductor, Andris Nelsons, the eruption of energy was of another magnitude, the adrenaline palpable, the impact electrifying. The floor vibrated, a novelty in the unyielding acoustics of the Barbican.
It’s not a question of hyperbole, but for once let’s allow ourselves: it’s my concert of the year so far, in a repertoire that doesn’t always appeal to me. Moreover, it reflects Strauss’ absolute authority – even in his mid-twenties when he produced this demo piece – to achieve the effect he desired from an orchestra. The strings launch the action in a small upward burst, like an inspiration, the violins galloping from the lowest note to the highest. Instantly, the full orchestra tears up with a loud and propulsive fanfare motif: the libertine, his fate sealed, indulges in a wild and erotic game. At the end it is ruined, the conclusion drowned out a sober whisper.
Each orchestra performs this work. Why was it better? History plays a role. Named after the trade hall of the city’s “clothing house”, of which Felix Mendelssohn was the music director, the Gewandhaus achieved a rare continuity even during the GDR years. Tradition can also be a burden, but not here. Brass is pure, ready to roar but never grate. The woodwind game is full of character. The string sound is rich, yet fresh and sharp, especially in Also sprach Zarathustra. This over-the-top work, all about nature and Nietzsche, may be less than the sum of its nine parts, but it features the colors of a great orchestra, from the rumbles of the double bass to the wildly quivering fugue, sleazy, waltz of coffee, tinkling glockenspiel and big bell. If it’s philosophy, I’ll have more.
Tuesday’s event was the second in a two-part Strauss project (currently touring Europe). It should have been four, but Nelsons’ other orchestra, the Boston Symphony, canceled. Yuja Wang did the same as a soloist in the youth group Burlesque. Anyone who thinks her replacement, Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, might lack brilliance would be mistaken. Requiring absurd technical magic – can anyone play it without a few smudges or fudges? – this mini-concerto is shunned like scum by some, but the forces present, especially the witty and acerbic Buchbinder, were worth the encounter. Since it is now mandatory to comment on Wang’s clothes, in his absence, I must say that Buchbinder, with his gray silk socks and black velvet underpants, had his own pizzazz.
Due to Scotland’s indoor face covering rules, only relaxed in mid-April, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was slow to confirm its May concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow: notably the world premiere of a major choir commission from the SCO to its associate composer, Anna Clyne. It was part of a program of British works led by Andrew Manze, who started out as a baroque violinist but has now proven gifted in this local repertoire of the last century.
The opening was that of Grace Williams Sea sketch (1944). “Anyone know this room?” Manze asked, waiting for the “No” answer. My hand, almost alone and smugly, rose, based on the knowledge of a full week after a lifetime of ignorance. I heard Britten Sinfonia play it seven days ago. On Monday, I got to hear it again, when the Bath Festival Orchestra performed it in the city’s Roman baths. The more broadcasts, the better. Burst and atmospheric, it set the mood for Clyne’s Yearsto a text by American playwright Stephanie Fleischmann.
Clyne’s impetus came from confinement, but the scope is greater: an exploration of loops and layers of time. The choral and orchestral lines mirror each other, overlap, intertwine, extend. Clyne deftly provides the singers (the excellent SCO Chorus) with gratifying vocal writing, leaving astringency for the orchestra – as in the thunderous, manic second part or the hectic expanse of the third to the words “find something lost in the sky”. This captivating piece deserves a place in the repertoire.
The second half of the concert featured talented violist Timothy Ridout, who played Britten’s angst tears (1950) with significant support from the SCO. Then came Vaughan Williams in the year of his 150th birthday. His Flos Campi (1925) – the title, “fleur des champs”, comes from the biblical canticle of Solomon – is a rhapsodic outpouring, alto surging with and against orchestra and ecstatic choir. Anyone who thought Vaughan Williams was a bit of a pastoral backslider should hear this. Not unknown but not often played live, it’s crazy, bizarre and glorious.
Star ratings (out of five)
Gewandhaus Leipzig/Nelsons ★★★★★
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Manze ★★★★