Saturday, 13 September 2014

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 : Alan Gilbert conducts Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for the BBC Proms 75


I had no intention of reviewing Prom 75, the penultimate night before the BBC Proms ended but how could I stop myself? It was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9: the Choral, which as much as it has been over played at international halls since the 1824, hasn't become stale... ever. To put it bluntly, it's just a bloody good symphony. Last year, I saw the Philharmonic orchestra perform with the London Symphony Chorus (who also performed this evening) at the Barbican Centre as part of the Raymond Gubbay tradition, and I still recall fond memories.

All attempts to buy return tickets were out-of-bounds and stall seats were still unaffordable. Alas, at such short notice, I ran to the Royal Albert Hall and stood in the proms arena queue just after 2 o' clock. When it came to 7 o' clock, revellers were dusting themselves off from the September sun filing up the spaces of the 6000-seater auditorium. Prommers were slowly edging into the stage and there sat above the orchestral stage were the multiple choir members (or as I'd like to call them, 'the angelic voices') of the Leipzig Opera Chorus, Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir, Leipzig Gewandhaus Childrens Choir and London Symphony Chorus - phew, that's quite a mouthful.
View as a 'prommer'

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra graciously entered the stage shortly followed by the half Japanese, half American conductor Alan Gilbert. Gilbert, originally a violinist, is currently the musical director of the New York Philharmonic who stepped in last moment as Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly, who has conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra numerous times, had to 'withdraw' due to medical reasons.

To begin the evening was Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha's Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 which is a piece I'm not familiar with. Yet, it gave me the same unwavering feelings I get when I'm not entirely united with a piece. With all my optimism focused on the headline of the show - hearing xylophones mimic doorbells that descend into a tumultuous caution song of stringent percussion and clashing brass instruments -  Paraphrase wasn't the most ideal piece to perform. Yet, on reflection it made Beethoven's 9th look better. The prolonged stillness of the strings at the very end led to a long silence; the audience wasn't sure when to clap.

Alan Gilbert conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (BBC PROMS photos)

The crux of the matter

The first movement's Allegro ma non troppo was full of sustenance, spirit and precision through our mighty conductor. From the arena below, I felt the sonata's bass lines from the cellos under my feet and although considered by some to sound like orchestral tuning, the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra knew exactly what they were doing. 
The second movement's Scherzo was just as vibrant and genuine as the first where trombones and timpani unleashed their unique qualities. At times, I noticed unexpectedly from Gilbert that he'd lower his baton and make smaller hand gestures closer to his chest. I wasn't sure if he was just tired or simply saving his energy for the presto in the fouth movement. Nevertheless, at the coda his unflagging baton came out again.

Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra played songs that sounded like spring as they calmed down after the calamity in the first two movements. This was portrayed through lullaby-esqe flutes, swooping strings that plucked and soared. After feeling like we've just left a Latin mass, the audience came together in universality with Beethoven, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Gilbert and the choir singers, particularly the red jumper wearing Childrens Choir.

The forth movement was expectantly sturdy, loud and exuberant. The audiences knew 'Ode to Joy' too well that they clenched their fist and shook them discreetly to the valiant drums, especially when the skilled ‘angelic voices’ sung 'Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?' Christina Landshamer, Gerhild Romberger, Steve Davisliy and Dmitry Belosselskiy's honey soaked voices put the icing on the cake. Belosselskiy introduced the fugue holding onto every deep note with Davisliy seasoned timber as he moved his body to the tone of his joyful voice. 
Gilbert was firm, swaying to Beethoven’s music and moving one side to the other. One moment he'd open his arms wide to the choir singers with a smile and then quickly hunch down to the orchestra with a stern face, hands close together, as he directed the violins to repeat the presto piece.
With four call backs for the quartet and Gilbert, and a standing ovation from me, - well, I was already standing in the arena - I don’t believe even half of the people in the Royal Opera House had ever experienced a Beethoven’s 9th symphony like it. I mean that in a good way. 

 
This prom took place on Friday 12th September. Click here for more information.