In an era in which orchestras are supposed to have lost their distinctive 20th-century sounds, the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig is one that retains its characteristic dark hue, with fascinating wind timbres that simply refuse to blend into a homogenised whole. And yet there is refinement and virtuosity to match the world’s best orchestras. The orchestra is enjoying something of a renaissance under the stewardship of Riccardo Chailly, Gewandhauskapellmeister since 2005. Birmingham’s Symphony Hall is surely one of the finest concert halls in the world and the ideal space to hear a distinguished visiting orchestra.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly © Gert Mothes
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly
© Gert Mothes

The concert opened with the lesser known Shostakovich cello concerto, the second. Unlike the more aggressive and confrontational first concerto, the second (written in 1966 for Mstislav Rostropovich) is more subtle, characteristic of the composer’s late period of composition. Soloist Lynn Harrell’s soulful, singing style seemed better suited to the contemplative opening of the Largo first movement, at one with the chocolatey lower strings of the orchestra. Throughout the piece, I marvelled at Shostakovich’s orchestration (two harps, two horns, no trumpets, bass drum, tuned percussion, piccolo and contrabassoon augmenting a standard “Classical” orchestra) with full orchestral outbursts being reserved for climactic moments to great effect. The bass drum interjections were particularly shocking.

There were occasional moments of fragile tuning in some of the more tricky double-stopping passages for the soloist, but for the most part this was an intense, compelling performance from Harrell, who bounded on and off stage with a spring in his step that belied his years. There were plenty of opportunities for the various sections of the orchestra to excel, a highlight being the wonderfully quirky passage for a trio of bassoons in the second movement. A special mention should be given to the two hornists who delivered their tricky canonic fanfares with aplomb.

The furious dance episodes were executed most sardonically by Chailly and the orchestra. The many duets between Harrell and the various members of the orchestra were touchingly done. A final crack of the woodblock and glissando from the soloist ended the concerto, all the more startling as this is the only Shostakovich concerto to end with a whimper rather than a bang.

More Russian repertoire featured in the second half. Rachmaninov’s huge Symphony no. 2 is certainly no stranger to the concert hall, although it has often been recorded and performed with some cuts to cater for the LP or the impatient audience member. Chailly and the orchestra, however, treated us to the whole thing, complete with exposition repeat in the first movement.

A noted Mahlerian, Chailly excels in this sort of music: large-scale and Romantic. The phrasing was exquisitely done. The polish and warmth of the strings were evident in the yearning opening of the first movement. The placement of the violins left and right at the front of the stage, and the powerhouse bass section situated to the left of centre, meant that all contrapuntal details were vivid and present, with the muscular bass sound underpinning the whole orchestra.

Chailly opted for swift tempi in general, particularly in the more lyrical second subject passages that are sometimes over-indulged by other conductors. What a joy to hear the last note of the first movement as Rachmaninov scored it: for double basses alone. Yet, so many conductors choose to add a timpani stroke. No such emphasis was needed here with this bass section!

Chailly put his Mahlerian credentials to good use in the mocking wind passages found in the scherzo before each reprise of the main theme. In the slow movement the sumptuous strings provided a lovely cushion upon which the principal clarinettist floated Rachmaninov’s wonderful melody: an ideal showcase for the distinctive, almost piquant, sound of the Leipzig clarinets, certainly not mellow as one would find in most other orchestras.

The finale was also taken at a swift pace, with the strings tearing into the reprise shortly before the introduction of Rachmaninov’s ubiquitous “Dies irae” theme. Chailly ensured that we could hear this theme wherever it appeared in the orchestra. It was particularly well annunciated by the snarling trombones. Chailly surged forward in the final apotheosis where some linger, and we were braced for a very fast close but, once again, he had a surprise in store with the last notes broadened in tempo, giving at once a darker and more final close. The audience loved it and Chailly was clearly moved by the level of warmth and appreciation for his fine orchestra here in Birmingham.