Founded by some dozen and a half merchants more than 250 years ago, the orchestra adopted its name from a 500-seat assembly hall used by cloth traders which was called the Gewandhaus, or Garment House. Among the orchestra’s distinguished music directors: Felix Mendelssohn, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Franz Konwitschny and Kurt Masur. Thus, the place to be Thursday evening, February 25, was Symphony Hall, where the Celebrity Series and the DeMoulas Foundation brought the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to Boston. It was decidedly the best Beethoven in town.
At first, I thought it might be the ornamental yet magisterial Beethoven tribute high above stage and the orchestra’s world-renown name—one whose history includes performing all of Beethoven’s symphonies during the composer’s lifetime—that might have had me thinking Beethoven himself was there with us. No doubt those images did help stir my imagination. In the end, though, almost all had to do with witnessing the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with soloist Louis Lortie and music director Riccardo Chailly in Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major (“Emperor”), and Symphony No. 7 in A Major. It was as perfectly planned and musically executed a program as one could envision. And their musical portrait of Beethoven was the farthest from him being the grumpy and stern old man we often are led to believe he was.
Placement of the sections onstage had the first and second violins flanking either side of the podium, with violas and cellos in the center, and the double basses behind the first violins. However, instead of being onstage already seated, as seems to be de rigueur, the instrumentalists entered one by one, in a somewhat casual manner, I might add. Continuous applause welcomed them as they milled onto stage. After tuning they sat readied and the door stage left opened—the door that BSO music director Levine and others invariably use to make their way to podium. But it was the door stage left on the opposite side where both Lortie and Chailly appeared. Giggles rippled about the hall.
From there on, these musicians brought great joy, taking full possession of the Beethoven behemoths. Quicker tempos, for one, played a major role in lighting up the scores, most noticeably in the Presto: Assai meno presto of the Seventh. Their up-tempo playing enhanced the heroic character of the scherzo’s trio by drawing out a joyful sound, leaving the powerful and noble lighter and more personal. The orchestra’s quicker paced ruminations in the minor-keyed, march-like second movement eschewed a heavier brooding to infuse those serious statements of Beethoven with uplifting affirmation and assertion.
Riccardo Chailly’s athleticism was another key element. Throughout both works, with discipline everywhere in evidence, Chailly’s innate physical understanding of the music took over, re-routing expectations. His dancing, coaxing, and wondrous array of gestures convinced me that he had an inside track to the composer’s mind. Everything he did felt completely natural, and the orchestra was right there with him every step of the way. Carefully calibrated, yet totally spontaneous, outcomes made the music feel real. A blockbuster Allegro con brio (fourth movement of the symphony) with high speed and intensity was exhilarating. I wondered how many others’ ears in the standing-O crowd were actually ringing like mine from the absolutely superbly boisterous and joyful “noise” Chailly and the Leipzig Orchestra made.
Canadian pianist Louis Lortie studied with Beethoven “disciples” and “specialists.” He performed all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas at Wigmore Hall, London. He made more than a few astonishing passes at Beethoven’s fifth concerto. One of these was his thrilling dialogue with the orchestra in the concluding movement. He and orchestra were one. I did not always understand what he was up to, but his playing was so precise and crystal-clear that I could do nothing other than defer to his interpretation. His proclivity for exquisiteness of tone enraptured.
His athleticism gave life and complemented the very moves of the orchestra. Lortie’s moves between a bold enormity of sound and the delicate crystallinity of linear shapes transcended time. I had the sure sense that he was making his way toward Beethoven’s every wish.
In 1781, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra took as its motto: “Res severa verum gaudium” or, “True pleasure is a serious business.” And that is exactly what they delivered in our town! And there were two encores! For Lortie it was the final movement of the piano sonata, “Les Adieux,” and for the orchestra it was the Overture to Prometheus, Op 43.
Throughout, the synergy of movement and sound conjured the very presence of the master who, had he been there, might have given them two thumbs up.