In the Gewandhaus shop, a compilation CD entitled Leipzig Classics sits proudly in a stand: Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner and Grieg, who all had considerable connections to the city, are represented. And Richard Strauss? Entirely absent. Strauss does not have many significant associations with Leipzig; he occasionally conducted the Gewandhaus and the first complete cycle of Strauss tone poems was presented in Leipzig, under Arthur Nikisch in the 1920/21 season. Despite this, the Gewandhaus has embarked on a series of Strauss events, culminating in yesterday evening’s concert under Riccardo Chailly to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the composer.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra © CAMI
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
© CAMI

As well as being a celebration of Strauss, the concert also marked a significant farewell. Principal cellist Jürnjakob Timm made his final appearance with the orchestra, which rewarded him with the solo role as Cervantes’ knight-errant, Don Quixote. It seemed that nerves (understandably enough) got to him early on, with a slightly thin tone, but he soon settled into an affectionate account, the Don’s soliloquy before his death nostalgic without being dewy-eyed. Timm played on the ‘Klengel cello’, that played by Julius Klengel, former principal cellist of the Gewandhaus until 1924, so a sound that Strauss himself will have known.

Principal viola Vincent Aucante provided witty commentary as his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza. Yet the chief glory of this performance, and in the concert as a whole, was the terrific sound produced by the Gewandhaus Orchestra. It is built on a sturdy foundation of lower strings that few orchestras can match. The dark-hued palette of its double basses (positioned behind the first violins) and cellos is full of chocolate and mahogany tints, while lower woodwinds impressed with their dancing, chortling harmoniemusik of the Don’s meeting with Dulcinea. The tenor tuba and bass clarinet pairing to support Sancho Panza’s dialogue with the Don was most characterful, while the bass tuba and contrabassoon glissandos at the end of Variation IV (Unhappy adventure with a procession of pilgrims) was delightfully rude. Flutter-tongued brass brought Variation II’s flock of sheep to vivid life, while the tilting at windmills was vivdly brought to life by col legno cellos and whirring flutes and piccolo.

By its very nature an episodic work, Chailly managed to steer a clear narrative through this account of Don Quixote. His conducting style relies on precision, without recourse to grandstanding gestures.

With Strauss’ great love for the female voice, it was ironic that the task of presenting a handful of his orchestral songs on this celebratory occasion fell not to a soprano, but to a baritone. Matthias Goerne selected a quintet of songs orchestrated by the composer himself, ranging from popular favourites such as Morgen and Ruhe, meine Seele to the lesser known, but beautifully ethereal, Hymnus. Even at his softest, you remain completely aware what a powerful baritone Goerne possesses and his singing is incredibly smooth. However, despite some busy arm-ography, his readings occasionally lacked dramatic delivery. The peaceful nature of Morgen suited him best, matched by some ethereal playing from the concertmaster. Flute and harp contributions lent Hymnus a fragile beauty.

Riccardo Chailly © CAMI
Riccardo Chailly
© CAMI

In an interview earlier in the day, Chailly spoke to us about the importance of avoiding the “crystallization” that following tradition can entail. He successfully maintains the rich darkness of the Gewandhaus sound, but in readings which burst with a freshness of approach, exemplified in a quite stunning account of Till Eulenspiegel to close the concert. The score was taken as a cracking pace, yet didn’t lack precision. For the only time in the evening, Chailly allowed himself a few dramatic gestures, urging his orchestra on as the prankster Till laughs and jokes his way from one scrape to the next. Even Till’s execution – after a moment’s silence – is laughed off. The mocking E flat clarinet was superbly played here, as was Till’s famous horn theme, heard right at the start. Bassoons, representing the fusty academics, were suitably grumpy and the lacerating trumpets announced Till’s impending fate were terrific. This was a virtuosic performance and a witty, pithy way to conclude a fine tribute to Richard Strauss, whetting the appetite for the Gewandhaus’ planned cycle of Strauss tone poems, paired with Mozart concerti, for 2015/16.

 

 

Mark Pullinger's flights to/ from Leipzig were sponsored by Ryanair.