The Strauss Project at the Barbican was supposed to be a major transatlantic undertaking, a collaboration between the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Boston Symphony Orchestra united under the chief of both, Andris Nelsons. Alas, the BSO had to withdraw from their portion of the series due to ongoing COVID-19 issues, throwing into doubt whether the Barbican could justify the adjective “epic” with just one of Nelsons’ bands in attendance. On the strength of this first concert, the marketing department’s aim was true.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
© Mark Allan | Barbican

It was an interesting programme: one of Strauss’ first real forays into the kind of writing that would become a signature in his Macbeth, all force and drama, followed by the frothy indulgence of the Rosenkavalier Suite and then the heroism (both genuine and humorous) of Ein Heldenleben. Personal taste would have had some form of tonal palate-cleanser, Mozart perhaps, to balance the weight of Strauss’ heady brew, but it was an appealingly curated selection nonetheless and to hear the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in this repertoire under a conductor for whom this kind of music is so natural was an experience of total luxury.

The defining feature which linked the playing of the three was the intense precision and detail that was brought to the performance. Strauss really lets rip in Macbeth as he explores the form of the tone-poem and Nelsons allowed the programmatic nature of the work to shine, giving form to both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the latter particularly deftly shaped with a seductive shimmer from the woodwind. The sheer quality of the Gewandhausorchester’s sound – rounded, velvety, entirely in unity – was ideal for the work, giving full voice to a work that needs to be played with some force without the sacrifice of nuance, while Nelsons’s ability to work towards a climax was demonstrated well.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
© Mark Allan | Barbican

If there were a weak point in the programme it was perhaps the Rosenkavalier Suite, a “best of” selection from the opera which can seem somewhat limp when compared to the original work in all its glory. Two moments really stood out here: firstly the glorious “Presentation of the Silver Rose” the playing from the woodwind (particularly the oboes) as fresh as could be imagined against the muted opulence of the strings, Nelson’s pacing perfectly judged. The other, in complete contrast, was “Baron Ochs’ Waltz”, which was alive with humour, the sweep of the strings both courtly and overtly comic.

Ein Heldenleben was the finest of the three pieces and mention must be made of the indefatigable performance from leader Andreas Buschatz whose characterful vivid playing brought real class to “The Hero’s Companion”. As with the previous pieces, Nelsons’ ability to unleash the full scale and volume of the piece while exposing so much beauty and detail in the piece was on display, particularly in “The Hero at Battle”. The tempi were unhurried but not lagging, which allowed for a natural unfolding of the piece. The quality of playing from the brass section was particularly noticeable: robust and unfailingly full in sound, this was musicianship of the highest calibre. Nelsons’ descent into the final section of the piece was skilfully managed, the sound ebbing gently away with pinpoint precision.  A luxurious experience indeed.

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