Imagine a hundred elite athletes racing to a cliff edge and leaping over, not to their doom but to exhilarating flight. The opening of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, Op 20, should sound like that, and unless disaster strikes in this most fiendish of works, usually does. In the hands of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra and its chief conductor, Andris Nelsons, the eruption of energy was on a different scale, adrenaline palpable, impact electrifying. The floor vibrated, a novelty in the unyielding acoustic of the Barbican.
This is not a matter of hyperbole, though for once let’s allow some: this was my concert of the year so far, in repertoire that does not always appeal to me. More, it reflects Strauss’s absolute authority – even in his mid-20s when he produced this show-off piece – in getting the effect he wants from an orchestra. The strings kickstart the action in a tiny upward flurry, like an intake of breath, violins galloping from lowest note to high. Instantly the full orchestra lets rip with a noisy, propulsive fanfare motif: the libertine, his fate sealed, is at wild, erotic play. By the end, he is ruined, the hushed conclusion a sober whisper.
Every orchestra performs this work. Why was this better? History plays a part. Named after the city’s “garment house” trading hall, with Felix Mendelssohn once its music director, the Gewandhaus has achieved rare continuity, even through the GDR years. Tradition can be a burden too, but not here. Brass is pure-toned, willing to roar but never rasp. Woodwind playing is alive with character. The string sound is rich, but fresh and acute, especially in Also sprach Zarathustra. This overblown work, all about nature and Nietzsche, might be less than the sum of its nine parts, yet it showcases the colours of a large orchestra, from double-bass rumbles to crazily skittering fugue, louche, cafe-style waltz, tinkling glockenspiel and big bell. If this is philosophy, I’ll have more of it.
Tuesday’s event was the second in a two-part Strauss Project (now on European tour). It should have been four, but Nelsons’s other orchestra, the Boston Symphony, cancelled. So too did Yuja Wang as soloist in the youthful Burleske. Anyone thinking her replacement, the Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, might lack her dazzle would be wrong. Requiring absurd technical wizardry – can anyone play it without a few smudges or fudges? – this mini-concerto is disdained as froth by some, but the forces here, especially the witty and acerbic Buchbinder, made it worth the encounter. Since it is now mandatory to comment on Wang’s apparel, in her absence I should say that Buchbinder, with his grey silken socks and black velvet slip-ons, had his own pizzazz.
Because of Scotland’s rules on face covering indoors, only relaxed in mid-April, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was late to confirm its May concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow: notably, the world premiere of a major SCO choral commission from its associate composer, Anna Clyne. It was part of a programme of British works conducted by Andrew Manze, who started out as a baroque violinist but has now proved himself gifted in this homegrown repertoire of the past century.
The opener was Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches (1944). “Anyone know this piece?” Manze asked, expecting the answer “No”. My hand, almost alone and smugly, shot up, based on a full week’s knowledge after a lifetime of ignorance. I heard Britten Sinfonia playing it seven days earlier. On Monday I could hear it again, when Bath Festival Orchestra performs it at the city’s Roman baths. The more airings the better. Gusty and atmospheric, it set the mood for Clyne’s The Years, to a text by the American playwright Stephanie Fleischmann.
Clyne’s impulse came from lockdown, but the reach is greater: an exploration of the loops and layers of time. Choral and orchestral lines mirror each other, overlapping, interweaving, expanding. Clyne cleverly provides the singers (the excellent SCO Chorus) with rewarding vocal writing, leaving astringency to the orchestra – as in the thunderous, manic second part or the striding expanse of the third to the words “find something lost in the sky”. This absorbing piece deserves a place in the repertoire.
The concert’s second half featured the rising-talent violist Timothy Ridout, who played Britten’s anguished Lachrymae (1950) with sensitive support from the SCO. Then came Vaughan Williams in his 150th anniversary year. His Flos Campi (1925) – the title, “flower of the fields”, comes from the biblical Song of Solomon – is a rhapsodic outpouring, viola surging with and against orchestra and ecstatic chorus. Whoever thought Vaughan Williams a bit of a pastoral retrograde should hear this. Not unknown but not often played in concerts, it’s mad, bizarre and glorious.
Star ratings (out of five)
Leipzig Gewandhaus/Nelsons ★★★★★
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Manze ★★★★