Arguably the highest-profile visiting orchestra of the season, Riccardo Chailly brought his Leipzig orchestra to Birmingham for a duo of 20th-century Russian works. The large audience was not disappointed, Rachmaninov’s second symphony in particular shining in a magnificent performance.

Riccardo Chailly © CAMI
Riccardo Chailly
© CAMI

Much of the evening’s success came from the rich tonal allure of the Leipzig strings, who produced a velvety, cushioned sound which few orchestras could hope to match, and it made for lusciously soft Rachmaninov. They played with obvious physicality, rocking back and forth in unison-like waves, similarly coordinated in shaping every phrase beautifully. Chailly’s command of the whole work’s structure was superb too; not once did one wish for any of the cuts which have been applied to this symphony at various times.

Any temptations towards overindulgence in the famous slow movement were firmly resisted, which was generally unsentimental and straightforward and wistful rather than overtly passionate. Right from the introspective, softly lyrical clarinet solo, this was a steady, dreamy reading. The movement’s climax lingered only for a very brief moment before fading, sigh-like, into softness. It was one of many spine-tingling moments.

Not that there was ever any loss of incision in the appropriate places, though; the second movement’s wilder elements were attacked ferociously from the outset, and the brilliant interweaving of string lines came through with perfect clarity. Hints at the legato theme of the slow movement made for a wonderful contrast, Chailly powering through before they had chance to settle. The fourth movement combined full-hearted jollity with delightfully nostalgic reflections on the Adagio with an infectious enthusiasm. It was hard not to smile at the irrepressible bounce and brass chromatics or the obvious joy the strings took in the swells and falls, again moving as one.

Before the Rachmaninov, American cellist Lynn Harrell was soloist for Shostakovich’s second concerto, less showy and far less frequently heard than the first. Nonetheless, following its 1966 première the composer was named a Hero of Socialist Labour. It is a desolate, brooding work, aspects which Harrell captured in his darkly foreboding tone at the opening. There was a misty air to the orchestral playing, tensely seeming to hide something behind thick textures and yet sharp and direct throughout. The work’s eccentricities in sudden changes of direction and percussive interjections were handled with great agility. In particular, the excitable crescendo in the first movement was well managed by Chailly, culminating in eight aggressive, damped bass drum strokes to chastise the music away from giddiness. The strings responded with wonderfully sonorous, sulking low chords.

Particularly strong bite was found in the Allegretto from soloist, winds and timpani. The intensity grew whilst remaining taut with almost military control amid mechanical percussive effects. Again, Chailly offered convincingly tempting moments of serenity before snapping back into martial terseness. Harrell’s interactions with the orchestra were especially good in the third movement, in which he acted almost as part of the percussion section in his rhythmical, marked tapping. Elsewhere he played with a suitably nasal legato which perfectly suited the atmosphere, and the work came to a soft, tense close. After multiple bows he commented on how much he had enjoyed playing with the orchestra on tour, and dedicated his sunny and elegant encore, a Schubert Moment Musical, to them.

A huge ovation followed the Rachmaninov for the orchestra and a grinning Chailly. It was that sort of evening, a programme which left a warm smile at the mere thought of the ravishing Leipzig strings.