How will the maestro's tenure be remembered?
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra will, we’re told, be back at The Barbican in the near future under their incoming Gewandhauskapellmeister Andris Nelsons – but time now to take stock. Last Friday evening Riccardo Chailly conducted his last concert on tour with the orchestra – a typically ambitious programme that paired Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung, Metamorphosen and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. And as Chailly brought the rascally Herr Eulenspiegel back to earth with a bump – the way he tells it, the animated slapstick fury of cartoon music starts with those last few bars of Strauss’ score – my thoughts rewound back to the balmy 2011 summer afternoon I knocked on Chailly’s front door in Milan to talk about his forthcoming cycle of the Beethoven symphonies.
I had recently reviewed his disc of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F with the Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani which I’d enjoyed greatly; but my admiration for his work was otherwise rooted in the miraculous 2-CD set of music by Edgard Varèse he recorded as his decade-long stint with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was drawing to a close – a set that included a handful of Varèse rarities recorded for the very first time.
Sadly, even Chailly couldn’t pull a long lost Beethoven symphony out of the ether but, we talked, and it became clear that the Chailly approach to excavating Varèse applied to every score he touched. I’ve written before about his uncanny knack of performing each piece like it is new music – which is a pretty good soundbite but not, of course, the whole truth. Chailly’s new broom, as it swept through the Beethoven, then Brahms, symphonies, was grounded in his belief that borders on the obsessional in the value of historical research as a key to unlocking otherwise hidden interpretive doors. During our conversation about Beethoven, I mentioned the received wisdom that Arnold Schoenberg was more of a Brahms man, which Chailly agreed was broadly true, but then conjured up a necessary balancing corrective – his carefully annotated weave through a facsimile of Schoenberg’s own score of Beethoven’s Ninth. To conduct Beethoven, Chailly makes it his business to have an opinion about every aspect of a work’s reception and history.
Regrettably – make that inexplicably – there is to be no recording of Chailly’s Richard Strauss. As things stand, three nights at the Barbican – Tod und Verklärung, Metamorphosen, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben, Macbeth, Also sprach Zarathustra interspersed with Mozart concertos – will go undocumented in any permanent form. When two years ago I wrote my Gramophone Collection article on Also sprach Zarathustra the top slot went, as it happens, to Andris Nelsons and the CBSO – but a Chailly version would certainly give him a run for his interpretive money.
When, in 2013, we talked Brahms, Chailly made the simple point – so much so that it is invariably overlooked – that in the Third Symphony’s first movement, the second subject group, characterised by a clarinet theme, is not marked with an indication of tempo change. Floated in the same tempo as the opening theme, it takes on the character of a Serenade. Why, then, has it become tradition to add in a tempo change that Brahms never intended?
Chailly’s Also sprach Zarathustra posed comparably pertinent and searching questions. Strauss’ famed, yet all too often misrepresented, introduction borders on the understated in Chailly’s hands. But as Strauss brings the opening material back, you begin to understand his good conductorly conduct. Conductors can tend (hello, Gustavo Dudamel) to go for broke at the beginning, rendering Strauss’ flashback as an inert piece of transitional no-man’s-land. But Chailly recalibrates the structure by not overplaying his hand initially and wisely keeping some heat in reserve. The beginning is going to be impressive anyway, but now its reappearance grounds and reboots the piece structurally. Architectural robustness is forever Chailly’s watchword.
The relationship between Strauss’ opening trumpet motif bleeding into the rest of the piece was kept alive throughout, especially during the Waltz section where Chailly ensured that background woodwind figurations anchored around the opening triad resonated audibly in sympathy. This section can sometimes come uncomfortably smeared with sentiment, just as listening to Don Juan can feel like OD’ing on Christmas cake. But Chailly has no need for sentiment or lashings of icing. Drilling down into its structure – deep into its sub-structure in fact – strips away gloss and speaks of a more inquisitive and ambiguous relationship to the past than blunt nostalgia can provide.
A meaty box-set of Strauss tone poems would have represented an apt climax to the Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra relationship on disc, but mustn’t grumble. Plenty of Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra material exists upon which to feast. A recent visit to a second-hand record shop dealt up Chailly’s inaugural concert in Leipzig, released ten years ago, which contains Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and his rarely heard Sinfonie-Kantate ‘Lobgesang’. Chailly’s take on Mendelssohn’s overture is more deliberate than the version he issued last year, with some precision work still to be done on honing the orchestral timbre to his needs. But that was the springboard for ten years’ worth of extraordinary experimentation – a driven, gamey Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, HIP ideals made good on modern instruments; his radically rethought cycles of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Mahler; his recording of Mendelssohn’s original version of the Scottish Symphony; his disc of four Verdi orchestral works, previously unrecorded.
Which all adds to up quite a legacy. He’s going to be missed.