Saturday, 13 September 2014

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Beethoven 9 Prom London

The Last Night of the Proms is a wonderful party, but for music lovers the Real Last Night of the Proms is the night before, with Beethoven' s Symphony no 9. No music more symbolic of the Proms ethos than this wonderful symphony. This year, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra did the honours. This was a very special Prom indeed, for Leipzig's Beethoven tradition is even more glorious. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra has been doing Beethoven since Beethoven was "new music" and a living composer.

What a sense of occasion and what a rewarding performance! The famed "golden" sound of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra came vividly to life. Alan Gilbert was vindicated, too. I've heard this orchestra do this symphony twice live with Riccardo Chailly. Gilbert's approach was less dynamic, but he had a steady feel for the way the structure of the symphony builds up. Like a series of progressive waves, oddly enough like the "marches" in Mahler Second/Mvt 1, but much better defined here.  Gilbert's approach is quiet, rather than boisterous, but this in itself brings out the strengths of this orchestra. Such control from the double basses and lower strings - it's not at all easy to hold lines so long barely above the volume of a whisper. Incredibly beautiful. Wow, can the Leipzigers play! Muted, glowing, and full of meaning: Beethoven is slowly revealing a miracle, which unfolds from (controlled) chaos.

Superb singing, yet again. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir , the Leipzig Opera Chorus and  Leipzig Gewandhaus Childrens's Choir sing with the same rich resonance as the orchestra with which they  are associated.  The sound is something special. The London Symphony Chorus must have enjoyed working with them. Even better, the soloists. Dimitry Belosselskiy's voice rang out powerfully, commanding rapt attention in a packed Royal Albert Hall.  Steve Davislim equally impressive. I adore this singer, who can sustain phrases almost beyond human possibility, and make them float, seemingly without effort. We can't see his lungs but we can hear his total mastery oif technique. On this occasion he was putting his heart into his words: absolutely stirring, the clarity of his timbre shining, just like the brass behind him. Davislim's lyrical, too, creating the sense of quirkiness that worked extremely well with what was happening in the orchestra. To Beethoven Turkish troops with their pipes and drums, must have seemed wildly exotic. The Leipzigers , refined and lush as they are, defined the jaunty rhythms we've heard so often we take them for granted, without noticing why they're there.

"Deine Zauber binden weider,
was die Mode streng geteilt:
Alle Menschen werden Bruder,
Wo den sanfter Flugel weilt"

Absolutely, it matters that Beethoven is referring to exotic strangers, including them in the community. The word "Freude", (Joy) recurs repeatedly, but what kind of "joy" is it that intoxicates with such exhilaration? This joy has the power to break down divisons, even in war zones. For Beethoven, perhaps it was music. An orchestra epitomises that kind of shared commtment and focussed purpose.  
And so the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra showed its soul.  Leipzig has always had liberal political traditions. Felix Mendelssohn was one of its great conductors. When the Nazis pulled down Mendelssohn's statue from outside the Gewandhaus building, the mayor of the city tried to protest. In 1989, thousands of East Germans fled west, provoking a crisis in the DDR. The protests that started in the nearby Nikolaikirche, supported by Kurt Masur and many members of the orchestra, led to the overthrow of repression and the reunification of Germany.
A few weeks after that, the Leipzig Gewandhaus came to Oxford, to the Sheldonian At that stage, we still thought the Soviets might march in, as they'd done before, so the occasion was extremely charged, emotionally. 

On the Real Last Night of the BBC Proms this year, the mood was happier and more relaxed - Freude in every sense. How glorious it felt - orchestra, choirs, soloists, conductor all on the same page literally, performing their hearts out. The choruses wore red and black - pretty meaningful - and the instruments glowed gold, bronze and silver.  in the background  turquoise and sapphire lighting, and a beam highlighting the bust of Sir Henry Wood, who helped create the Proms. He's long dead, but if he could sing, he'd be joining in too!

Nowadays it's fashionable to call for the end of the BBC. Sure it does bad things, but where would we be without it? Consider.

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