Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Triumphs in the Celebrity Series of Boston

Nélida Nassar 10.28.2019

What a memorable opening for the Celebrity Series of Boston’s season 2019 – 2020! It was launched with a concert by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, which is visiting Boston this week thanks to the efforts of the indefatigable Andris Nelsons, now the Kapellmeister of the venerable Leipzig ensemble as well as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His leadership of a pioneering alliance between these two institutions has helped to firmly establish the Grammy Award-winning Nelsons as one of today’s most innovative conductors.

The concert began with Johannes BrahmsConcerto in A for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Opus 102. The work is a product not only of Brahms’ musical imagination but also of certain problems in his personal and professional lives, and it clearly carried great significance for him. Brahms had earlier dedicated his Violin Concerto to the preeminent violinist of the time and his closest musical friend, Joseph Joachim, who had inspired many of his compositions and upon whose advice Brahms constantly relied. Historically, the Double Concerto had its detractors. Clara Schumann reacted unfavorably to it, considering it “not brilliant for the instruments.” Richard Specht described it as “one of Brahms’ most inapproachable and joyless compositions.” Later critics have warmed to it: Donald Tovey wrote of the concerto as having “vast and sweeping humour.” What is certain is that performing it requires two gifted and equally matched soloists.

French cellist Gautier Capuçon and Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos both hark back to Brahms’ and Joachim’s profoundly Romantic sensibilities that inspired the work in the first place. The deep sonority of Capuçon’s 1701 Matteo Goffrillier cello and the performer’s highly personal view are evident from the outset. Although the opening cadenza is marked in modo d’un recitative, ma sempre in tempo (“in the style of a recitative, but constantly in tempo”), Capuçon takes extreme rhythmic (and dynamic) liberties, suggesting more of an intimate conversation than the narration Brahms specifies. The virtuosic Kavakos, playing his 1734 “Willmotte” Stradivarius violin, is Capuçon’s like-minded accomplice. Their phrases are handed off with exquisite delicacy, leading to a slower than usual, lyrical pace in the opening movement. It is clear who is in charge, as the deeply empathetic orchestral accompaniment is shaped to fit the soloists’ grand emotions. After a somewhat traditional andante, the finale alternates between fast-paced orchestral and leisurely
solo sections. 

Once considered radically original, the Double Concerto, with its broad soundscapes, has a thousand ways to excite the performers’ imaginations, but Nelsons’s banishes anything that does not contribute to a cohesive interpretation of the piece, and he never reaches for the spectacular. His very precise manner of conducting draws musical perfection from the world’s oldest civic symphony orchestra. With its nuanced playing and shimmering colors, the ensemble displays a refinement exceptional even among orchestras of the highest rank. The Double Concerto received an enthusiastic cheer, and the audience’s request for an encore was answered by the soloists with the 2nd movement of Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello. Dedicated to Claude Debussy, the sonata reveals Ravel’s true distillation of his artistry, the broad range of styles that influenced his composition, and the manifold textures he was able to create with a minimum of instrumentation. Capuçon and Kavakos give a remarkable interpretation that captures the work’s timbre, vibrato, and articulation. 

The concert resumed with Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C, D 944, “The Great” from 1826. Although he was in awe of Beethoven, Schubert here matches his master’s symphonies in length, drive, weight and formal innovations, while still managing to inject his own blend of expansiveness, lyricism, instrumental color, and harmonic finesse. Initially rejected by the Austrian Musical Society, it was Robert Schumann, better known at the time as an influential music critic than as a composer, who, when visiting Schubert’s brother Ferdinand in 1839 to examine the remaining scores, was amazed to discover an extraordinary complete symphony in C major. Schumann brought it to the attention of his friend Felix Mendelssohn, the conductor of the finest orchestra in Europe at that period, the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Fired with enthusiasm, Mendelssohn – proclaiming it to be remarkable, “bright, fascinating and original throughout” and “without doubt one of the best works which we have lately heard” – gave it its world premiere.

Nelsons and the orchestra kept the very lengthy symphony vibrant by maintaining throughout a rhythmic exactness and continuity that allowed no dead spots, yielding a performance made all the more eloquent by countless felicitous details of inflection and a superlative sense of form. The composition’s novel instrumentation, expansive form, and striking changes of mood transported the listener. The combination of the conductor’s concentration with the sheer beauty of the orchestra’s trademark sound was stunning. Each section adhered to a basic steady tempo, albeit with subtle plasticity, and no detail was lost. Highlighting key lines, Nelsons created a perfect balance between resolute determination and sweet warmth, as if keeping in reserve sufficient energy for a far quicker, and more exhausting repeated rapid ostinato figures in the violins.

The feeling that Schubert knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it was brilliantly conveyed, a feat made possible, in large part, because Nelsons was working with musicians he knows well enough to ask for precise changes in tempi and for textures of remarkable density. This afternoon the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig fully lived up the expectations aroused by its legendary history. The celebrity series has once again demonstrated its unerring perceptiveness in its classical music selection.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Leipzig Week events continues until 11.2.2019çon

Photography: Robert Torres