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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, overture (1826 version)
Psalm 114

Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang (1840 version)
Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952)

Verwandlung 2 (world première)
Anne Schwanewilms, Peter Seiffert, Petra-Maria Schnitzer (soloists)
Riccardo Chailly (conductor) Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
rec. live 2 September 2005, Gewandhaus, Leipzig.
DVD - all regions
EUROARTS 2054668 [121:00]

This film marks Chailly’s first concert as Chief Conductor of the Gewandhausorchester. It also celebrates the city itself, and the Orchestra’s founder, Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s legacy is both musical and spiritual, building on Leipzig’s history as a city of culture and learning. His place in music history has been obscured by decades of Wagner-inspired downgrading: this concert also reinforces his significance as an innovator who drew on the inspiration of the past to create new, striking music, transforming the musical landscape of his time.

The overture to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is so well known that its initial impact is easy to underestimate. Shakespeare himself was being rediscovered in the German-speaking world. The play subverts a conventional classical format by introducing a parallel world of humans, then subverts that still further by magic and fairies. Nothing is quite what it seems. Mendelssohn uses the full richness of orchestral form. The golden ambience of the Gewandhaus orchestra’s sound is legendary. As Chailly says, this is an orchestra that doesn’t need "warming up". They’ve known this music since infancy. But they are just too good for sterile repetition. Thus Chailly emphasizes the element of surprise and magic in the score that contradicts complacency. Against dark blocks of sound, images of light flicker past, like spectres only half seen. Even without the play, this would be strikingly dramatic music, filled with invention. The "bewitchment" melody, especially, is here beautifully caressed into shape. What a fitting start to an evening of magic!

Rihm and Mendelssohn, one might ask? The première of Rihm’s Verwandlung 2 doesn’t come as such a shock after an overture played with the vivacity that had gone before. Rihm is one of the great cutting edge contemporary composers, yet this new piece seems to follow on organically from the Mendelssohn. It was a special commission for this concert, so the references to Mendelssohn’s inner world of light, dark and magic aren’t accidental. Verwandlung means "transformation". The significance of Chailly’s emphasis on the "bewitchment" melody that illustrates Bottom’s transformation while asleep suddenly comes clear. Here are shifts from quiet to fortissimo, though by Rihm standards, fairly subdued – apart from a lovely solo passage, the trumpets are muffled. Rihm incorporates tradition into his new inventions. Attention is drawn to new developments by drum rolls, an old device, here sounding totally fresh. Several times, the music seems to be building up to a climax, but then suddenly subsides, until another wave starts again. Chailly’s expressive face lights up in excitement as the surprises in the score reveal themselves. It’s quite helpful to have this when listening to a completely new piece of music: Chailly and Rihm are close, and as conductor, Chailly has a clear vision of how the music unfolds. Verwandlung in one form or other will be premiered in San Francisco in March, and in London later this summer.

The theme of "old" and "new" music continues in the juxtaposition of Mendelssohn’s Psalm 114 and his Second Symphony, the "Lobgesang". Mendelssohn was crucial to the revival of interest in Bach and in oratorio. In an age before recording and easily available printed scores, what people listened to was what was being played at the time. Mendelssohn not only promoted Bach but also, thoughtfully incorporated the spirit of piety into his own music. Psalm 114 itself probably owes more to Handel in that it is purely choral, without soloists, recitatives etc. but for Mendelssohn’s time it was a striking piece of music. On another level, it symbolizes the composer’s dual heritage. The Psalm, set in its entirety, celebrates the escape of the Jews from servitude in Egypt. It is a hymn to freedom, in tune with the modernizing, liberal spirit of the Enlightenment. Leipzig, and the Gewandhausorchester in particular, was the crucible of the movement that ended the division of Germany. The relevance does not seem to have been lost on the massive Gewandhaus choir, who gave a powerfully committed performance, male and female voices pitted against each other, then combining in solidarity.

The Lobgesang was written as a grand civic gesture to celebrate the city’s history. It requires such huge choral and orchestral forces that it isn’t often performed, but this evening was an obvious occasion to present it in its full glory. Keeping these vast forces together is quite a feat. Chailly has conducted it several times over the years (once in London) and seems to appreciate its complex structure, part oratorio, part symphony, part theatrical experience. It is liturgical music adapted for community purposes. For Mendelssohn it represented a synthesis of the music of the past which he loved so much, and of the Zeitgeist of his own time. His much criticized "smoothness" was part of this belief in harmony and progress. Innovation doesn’t always have to "shout". Despite his reputation as a modernist, Chailly firmly believes that the past informs the present: he lets the music speak for itself without excessive interpretation, because it has plenty to say. It is a blockbuster, three quarters of which is choral. Just as Psalm 114 was about freedom, the Lobgesang places its faith in God and in progress. Anne Schwanewilms is spectacular, her voice powerfully soaring over choir and orchestra, yet perfectly balanced and pure. She is so good that she almost outclasses the other performers, excellent though they are. Peter Seiffert sang the dark Stricke des Tods with such conviction that it emphasized the aria’s crucial point in the overall structure. But it was the choir that shone in this most choral of symphonies.

This being a film of a live concert, it obviously doesn’t have the perfection of a studio production or the context of a documentary. But it captures a moment at a crucial time in the Gewandhausorchester’s history. Will Chailly lead then to greater heights? His love of natural lyricism meshes well with the orchestra’s own traditions, and they seem to have a similar vision of Leipzig’s greatest strengths. It bodes well for the future.

Anne Ozorio

 

 



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