“Royal Albert Hall / Barbican / Usher Hall (delete as necessary) sold out for Sunday morning concert.” How likely is this headline in response to a normal, mid-season concert in Britain? For Hamburg, it is perfectly normal, and the crowds that thronged the Laeiszhalle, young and old, chic and casual, were not to be disappointed. Now in his second year as Principal Conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Hengelbrock led his accomplished musicians in a programme which thrilled and moved their audience in equal measure. The unifying thread was a lack of comprehension: the failure of contemporary critical opinion to do justice to works that offended at the time.

Thomas Hengelbrock © Benjamin Krieg
Thomas Hengelbrock
© Benjamin Krieg

With C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony in C major we began at a transitional stage of music: no longer Baroque, perhaps, but not quite Classical. Several of the reduced orchestra were using period instruments and the arrangement of players itself was interesting, the back desks of violins and violas standing. The playing was crisp but sustained, with minimal use of vibrato even in the slow movement. The sound quality never fell away, the orchestra maintaining precise control of dynamics, including thrilling subito pianos. To modern ears there was nothing objectionable but to contemporaries more used to works by the composer’s father and only teacher, such a display of emotion and virtuosity was evidently “too peculiar and bizarre”. The stage was then vacated by the performers, who were replaced by a small army of “roadies” who set up even more microphones (the concert was being broadcast live) and music stands with commendable speed and efficiency.

The orchestra then streamed back for the principal work of the morning, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. The opening tutti was unashamedly symphonic. There was nothing apologetic or “accompanying” about the approach; this was a full-blooded orchestra in full cry. How was this young woman, calmly holding the Strad that once belonged to Joseph Joachim, ever going to rise above such a meaty sound? But from her first entry, Lisa Batiashvili was heart-stopping. If you’re in Britain, she will be visiting next year, and whatever happens, do not miss her. Rearrange your holidays, pawn the Steinway, sell the family silver if necessary – whatever it takes, you must get a ticket. Since coming second in the Sibelius Competition as a 16-year-old in 1995, she has had a glittering career. She also possesses a phenomenal technique and a legato that could convince you the circular bow has finally been invented.

Batiashvili’s talents were firmly at the service of the music, however, and every aspect of her performance showed focus and concentration. Even when the conductor dropped his baton during the second tutti, she swiftly knelt and returned it to him without batting an eyelid. Opting to play Kreisler’s cadenzas, she delivered them with brilliance and musicality. In the second movement, she was sublime. The brisk tempo in the finale was sustained by a distinct orchestral pulse. This was music that did not sit back on its haunches. Throughout, when the strings were playing on just one hair of the bow, the orchestral sound was substantial and the sense of rapport intense. At the triumphal conclusion, the musicians were as rapturous as the audience in their applause of the soloist. What price the “boring, repetitive sequences” that had so distressed the critics in the 1800s?

The final item, the Symphony no. 9 in E flat major by Shostakovich, was at least a work for which the composer had anticipated a mixed response. The magical number nine puts any composer in the same league as the great, from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner and Mahler. Much was expected therefore from the Soviet Union’s most distinguished living musician. Moreover, in August 1945, the Second World War had barely ended and a work celebrating victory and the leadership of Comrade Stalin was surely in order. Instead, we have a symphony which is distinctly lightweight: chirpy and quirky, humorous and irreverent. The musicians loved it and the critical establishment panned it.

The jaunty mood was entirely captured by Hengelbrock in the first movement, with some raucous, tongue-in-cheek trombone entries and much oompah-playing. There were some very slinky clarinet solos over pizzicato basses in the second movement. Sinister, muted trumpets sounded far off before a presto restored the good humour. In the ensuing largo, we were treated to a meltingly beautiful, un-heroic bassoon solo from Jörg Petersen. The fifth and final movement has some awkward changes of tempo, which the players negotiated with verve and enthusiasm. The control of dynamics, especially crescendo and diminuendo, was scrupulous, so the final few bars did not merely degenerate into a “blast”, but it was easy to see why the Central Committee were not pleased. As for the Sunday morning audience, we loved it.