I’m a bit of a sentimentalist when it comes to an orchestra’s heritage. And although times may change, it’s always a constant fascination seeing which famous works a particular orchestra has premiered. So when it comes to performing a new work, an orchestra like the Gürzenich, which has been no stranger to modern music through the ages and even boasts premieres of two Mahler symphonies and two Richard Strauss tone poems in its proud history, wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Raphaela Gromes and the Gürzenich Orchester Köln
© Gürzenich Orchester Köln

The new piece on this occasion was a brass fanfare. But this was no ordinary fanfare. This first performance of From Dust till Dawn by contemporary firebrand Bernhard Gander was short and violent. And from a composer who has written pieces with such intriguing titles as lovely monster, Oozing Earth and Cold cadaver with thirteen scary scars, it was no surprise to find this three-minute piece full of dense clusters, crushing dissonances and a rhythmic immediacy that drove through like a paranoid chase right to the final chord. If you started off sitting back comfortably in your armchair at the beginning, you were probably on the edge of your seat by the end.

Michael Sanderling conducts the Gürzenich Orchester Köln
© Gürzenich Orchester Köln

For the main part of the programme, we were back on terra firma. Although Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor doesn’t often feature at the top of people’s wish lists, the more I hear it performed live the more I enjoy it. Raphaela Gromes’ clean upper lines and creamy lower register suited this piece well, with plenty of meandering across the strings requiring clear articulation. Gromes brought out a rich passion in the music but with a refined delicacy, sensitive and intimate at times. Michael Sanderling’s careful shaping of the orchestral textures was a delight, not overdone or with any excessive rubato, and with the orchestra robust and glistening in all areas. Gromes produced a particularly sumptuous second movement while showing effortless intricacy in the lyrical and lively Rondo and her body swaying with the orchestra in its own tuttis. As an encore, Gromes teamed up enthusiastically with Angela Chang from the orchestra’s cello section in the charming Allegro vivo from Offenbach’s Cours méthodique de Duos for two cellos, Op.54 no.3.

Schubert had already written three symphonies and countless Lieder, including such landmarks as Erlkönig, by the time he wrote his Symphony no. 4, “Tragic”, at the age of 19. It is essentially a passage from darkness to light, from C minor to C major, but with plenty of turbulence along the way. Sanderling gave a rampant account, bringing out the full orchestral warmth, from the ominous pulsing of the introduction to the urgency and dynamism of the outer movements, punchy and articulate although heavy in places. But the highlight was the slow movement, a sublimely rich string sound, a delightfully floating oboe and some wonderful blending of the horns really did the trick for me.

This performance was reviewed from the Gürzenich Orchester Köln video stream