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Orchestral Brilliance from Leipzig at GMU

Ricardo Chailly - LeipzigFor Washingtonians, the George Mason Center for the Arts is not terribly convenient to get to, but sometimes the offerings are such that attendance seems mandatory and no effort should be spared. (Or, one can just hitch a ride with Ionarts central, attending the same concert on a DCist-mission.) The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly appearing there on March 3rd, with Yundi Li along as soloist, was such an occasion... an occasion every bit as starry as anything the Kennedy Center or WPAS offer. They rewarded the audience with a meaty, Germanic program of Strauss and Liszt (no Mahler for this region, which they presented elsewhere on their tour) and performances that were outstanding.

Riccardo Chailly, who came from the Concertgebouw Orchestra to take over the oldest orchestra in the world, the orchestra that with their conductor Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy created the ‘repertory orchestra’ as we know it, is known for the importance he places on transparency and clarity. He is less concerned with creating a overly homogenous blend but allows us to hear all the voices of even the biggest symphonic work. In that sense, he shares a kinship with conductors like Pierre Boulez and, to an extent, Claudio Abbado. And as it turns out, Chailly’s directorship in Leipzig is one of the happiest musical marriages that the east of Germany has had in the last half century – especially since that other marriage of love and competence – Dresden/Sinopoli ended prematurely due to the tragic, premature death of Chailly’s conducting compatriot.

Don Juan, op.20 was a fine example of that. Razor-sharp, acute, explosive, aggressive even, fine tuned and in such unison that there was not a single blurred edge, not a smudged climax, nor a single unclean detail. Don Juan usually doesn’t sound this good. The force with which this 1889 tone poem was played was almost unnerving and tempted at least this listener to attempt to buckle his seatbelt. Concert master Frank Michael Erben’s solo moments were as exquisite as those torn and wild, ecstatic bits that were played to the hilt, the playful and light parts that came across perfectly dainty, the solemn gloom that was brooding and shuddered lowly with delight.

Yundi LiWith the sonorous instrument that is the Gewandhaus behind him, Yundi Li was able to set upon dazzling the audience with a flashy, yet teasing and by all means refined account of the lyrical/stormy E-flat Major Piano Concerto by Franz Liszt. It is utterly impossible to over-romanticize Liszt, after all he is the arch-romantic to begin with. But his music is not sweet (or rarely so) and immune to becoming a cloying, sticky mush (Tchaikovsky) or overbearing (Schumann). His musical language may remain dense and forbidding in all but the few truly popular works (few composers as famous are less liked), but exuberance can never harm it. Coherence still needs to be cared for if his music, especially the piano sonata, is to make instinctive musical sense. The concerto is built well enough to let even casual listeners follow it with sustained interest - and Yundi Li provided the rest necessary for it to gain structure. His technique here, and in the encore (the Schumann/Liszt Widmung), was dazzling if not infallible.

Ein Heldenleben, the quintessence of the pompous, self-glorifying tone-poem, may not have achieved quite the supreme heights of Don Juan with the Leipzigers, but it came close. It had a tight and pronounced rhythmic undercurrent, a tad harsh perhaps (the very bright acoustic of the Center for the Arts contributes plenty to that, but is a welcome change from the muddled, muted sound of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall), especially compared to soft-edged, mellower Heldenleben that Chailly’s Concergebouw-successor Mariss Jansons produces on disc or in concert. Precision and detail, not a tapestry of sound, was the goal. It is much preferable than a band and its leader trying to hide their inability to achieve perfection behind the false homogeneity of blurred sound, and it is exciting to hear such detail when 120-some instruments blare away at full strength. Strauss does well by his concert masters, and Mr. Erben rightly earned to be singled out during the standing ovations for his contribution.

When Maestro Chailly turned to the ecstatic audience, announcing the encore, for a second I seemed to hear him say in his inimitable accent: “Schoenberg. Kammersinfonie”. No such luck, it turned out to be Salome’s Dance of the Seven Vails – but not less welcome for that.

On recording, Don Juan receives a superb treatment by the young Herbert von Karajan (not yet obsessed with that ‘wall of sound’ referred to above) with the Philharmonia Orchestra, reissued together with a stunning Till Eulenspiegel and music from Tannhäuser on the Testament label. The sound defies the recording’s age, the interpretations burst with youthful vigor. Ein Heldenleben is available in more great recordings than I can count (and anything with Strauss by Rudolf Kempe is invariably superb – but no modern recording has more thrust and the same tight underbelly that Chailly presented as does Thielemann’s with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG). The Liszt piano concerto(s) (pace Richter and Argerich) ought to be heard with Krystian Zimerman / Seiji Ozawa (DG) or Nelson Freire / Michel Plasson (Brilliant). Freire has also recorded the Brahms concertos recently – with Chailly and the Gewandhaus. It is rightly hailed as a recording that sets new standards, easily ranking with the previous top choices of Gilels (DG) and Fleisher (Sony), and is a great showcase for that new Chailly/Leipzig connection.

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Don Juan,
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Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Thielemann
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Liszt, Piano Concertos, Ozawa/Zimerman
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Liszt, Piano Concertos, Plasson/Freire
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Brahms, Piano Concertos, Chailly/Freire