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Friday, November 14, 2014

Concert Review: The Prodigal Prodigy

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Riccardo Chailly. Photo © 2014 Decca Classics/UMG
Sometimes the close historical connection between a composer and a major orchestra can lead to very special results. Such was the case Monday night at the soon-to-be-renamed Avery Fisher Hall, where Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in an evening dominated by the music of Felix Mendelssohn. The Gewandhaus is Germany's oldest orchestra, and Mendelssohn served as its music director from 1835 until his death in 1847.

Mendelssohn was a child prodigy and a master melodist, whose work falls somewhere between Classicism and the full flower of Romanticism in the 19th century. However, his tunefulness and popularity have been almost a drawback in modern times, with his carefuly crafted pieces considered "too safe" for modern ears. Under Mr. Chailly, the Leipzig players captured the fierce spirit in some of this composer's most celebrated works.

The concert opened with the Hebrides Overture, inspired by the composer's visit to a legendary cavern on an island north of Scotland in 1829. Here, the slow surge of strings suggested the heaving of the seas, with the repeated figures in the violins building an inexorable momentum that finally exploded in a wild salt spray of sound. The climactic phrases thundered with a storming rage that may have inspired Wagner's Dutchman.

The orchestra was joined by the Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, a work that Mendelssohn (with the violinist Joseph Joachim) brought back to the common repertory after a concert in 1844. Following the slow, hymn-like introduction in the woodwinds, Mr. Znaider played with astringent tone, his instrument complimenting and contrasting with the warm tutti under Mr. Chailly. This huge movement is an architectural challenge for soloist and conductor. Mr. Znaider scaled its heights without fear, soaring through the cadenzas devised by the violinist Fritz Kreisler.

That dryness was even more pronounced in the second movement, a gentle Larghetto that is one of Beethoven's most eloquent constructions. The gymnastic cadenza served as gateway to the high spirits of the final rondo. Here, it was Mr. Znaider's turn to lead the dance, in a capering melody featuring the low string of his instrument. The orchestra answered cheerfully, with the whole bubbling to a merry close. The violinist encored with the Sarabande from the Second Partita by Johann Sebastian Bach, the father of music in the city of Leipzig.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, a work that fuses classical structure with the history of the Lutheran church. It is anchored by two liturgical themes. One of these, the so-called "Dresden Amen" also appears in two of Wagner's operas (Tannhäuser and Parsifal). The second, the hymn "Ein feste burg," is one of the cornerstones of the Lutheran hymn-book.

Mr. Chailly led the orchestra in a potent, appropriately solemn performance of this score, interjecting a note of simple faith into the musical declarations of the first movement. The second movement, with its lively dance tune benefited from the crisp playing of the Leipzig winds, answered by the strings in a celebratory swelling of sound. The long, eloquent melodic lines of the trio, accompanied by contrapuntal writing in the higher strings show Bach's influence on Mendelssohn, with the complex ideas gathering themself and yielding once more to that lilting dance tune.

In the last two movements, Mendelssohn struggled to show the conflict between the nascent Lutheran movement and the birth of the reformation. The Dresden Amen is hinted at once more before a simple flute started the last movement.  In this finale, the thunderous chorale of Ein Feste Burg came to dominate the last pages of the symphony, swelling in orchestration, rising in dynamic and complexity in a manner that recalls Beethoven's treatment of Schiller's Ode to Joy. Mr. Chailly led a big-shouldered performance of this final movement, allowing the rich tones of the Leipzig brass to bellow forth this musical declaration of faith.

The concert ended with not one but two encores by Mendelssohn, both drawn from the composer's incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Intermezzo depicting the Rude Mechanicals (Nick Bottom and company) was dark and playful, with woodwinds depicting the antics of Shakespeare's tradecraftsmen turned would-be actors. The famous Wedding March followed, played with gusto and radiant good will from the Leipzig orchestra, proudly upholding their traditions before an appreciative New York audience.

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