The first time the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and its principal conductor Riccardo Chailly came to the Barbican for a residency, they played Beethoven. Now they are back for Brahms: over a period of 10 days they will be performing the complete symphonies and concertos, together with chamber music recitals and masterclasses for students of London’s Guildhall School of Music.
This will certainly present a rounded picture of how this historic orchestra sees Brahms in 2013. It should also usefully focus Chailly’s mind at a time when he finds himself the centre of fevered speculation as to whether he is about to be appointed the next music director at La Scala, Milan.
Chailly is from Milan himself, which is important for the opera-going audience at La Scala. It is also relevant to his Brahms. The long tradition of performing Brahms in Leipzig stretches back to the composer himself, who conducted the orchestra many times. For Germanic warmth, poise and relaxed lyricism, the Leipzig players are second to none, but Chailly has reworked that tradition with his own typically Italian qualities of drive, passion and clarity.
This first concert of the residency began with an extraordinarily impassioned performance of the Double Concerto. A bracing air swept away the usual dark clouds of Brahms at his most lugubrious, as Chailly set the scene for the two soloists with a vigorous symphonic background. The cellist gets the lion’s share of the attention and Enrico Dindo played with a burning Italianate fervour, well paired with Leonidas Kavakos as solo violinist (and how beautifully Chailly hushed the orchestra for his cellist in the slow movement).
The First Symphony is always the most outgoing of the four and never more so than here. Chailly has trimmed the Leipzig sound so that there is no spare fat, well primed for playing that is swift, lean and clear (even the slow movement refused to sink on to a bed of soft strings, as Chailly picked out bright and rasping sounds among the woodwind). There was little grandiloquence, just single-minded drive, culminating in an exhilarating race to the end. This is not the only way to play Brahms by any means, but it radiated self-confidence.