It only took four months from the time of this concert on 2 September 2005 for it to find its way onto a DVD distributed worldwide. This is close to a record for a classical music DVD. But the concert does represent a momentous event in its part of the world and for those of us elsewhere who care about such things. Riccardo Chailly had been conductor of the famed Royal Concertbegouw in Amsterdam since 1988, moving to the Gewandhaus only this past fall. The concert itself has profound connections to the orchestra's history containing as it contans three works by Mendelssohn who was the orchestra's first conductor. It is special also for containing a world première by one of Germany's great living composers, Wolfgang Rihm.
The gala audience in the gorgeously refurbished Gewandhaus was in for a treat. The concert opened with the original 1826 version of the precocious Mendelssohn's Overture to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' This original version sounds a bit more angular and a good deal more forward looking that the version we are familiar with. It seems to look forward to the sort of thing Berlioz was to do a few years hence. And the orchestra plays it with suavity and zest. One becomes aware of how strong this orchestra is in all its departments. (The only time I saw the orchestra play live was when they were on tour in the US during the latter days of the repressive East German regime -- one could spot their Stasi minders in the hall and backstage -- and the orchestra sounded and looked hangdog. None of that here. This is a brilliant orchestra.)
Next is the Rihm première, a 20-minute piece called 'Verwandlung II' ('Transformation II'; 'Verwandlung I' was premièred in 2002). It is a concerto for orchestra in all but name. A fairly typical late Rihm work, it looks backwards towards the formal constructs of Mahler but with no nostalgic tics. It is truly music of the present with brilliant orchestration, masterful manipulation of themes (cells, really) and clear form. It got a convincing performance from the orchestra and a loud ovation from the audience.
Mendelssohn's 'Psalm 114' ('When Israel came out of Egypt') is a compact, 15-minute powerfully moving expression of the faith of the exiled Jews. No soloists are used. Rather, Mendelssohn writes for a eight-part chorus, which sings the complete text of the psalm. It has six through-composed sections mirroring the Psalm's text and although it may be an example of what George Bernard Shaw sneeringly called 'kid-glove gentility,' it is an effective work for what it is. The excellent Gewandhaus Choir combined with the chorus of the Leipzig Opera make a joyful noise.
Mendelssohn's Second Symphony, 'Lobgesang' ('Song of Praise'), is a curious work in that it has three orchestral movements followed by an extended cantata for its final movement. It has some correspondence to Beethoven's Ninth, of course, but does not have the formal integrity of that work. This performance is of the original version from 1840 first presented at a Festival in Leipzig honoring the 300th birthday of Johann Gutenberg. I'm frankly not familiar enough with the symphony to note any differences between the two versions. The orchestral writing is marvelous. I particularly liked the sound of the unison trombones intoning the main theme of the first movement and the utterly gorgeous Allegretto second movement with its alternating pizzicato and arco strings accompanying meltingly lovely wind solos. The third movement is an Adagio, designated 'religioso,' and features some of the best string playing I've heard in a long time. This is vintage Mendelssohn and frankly I would have been more than happy to have had an instrumental finale. But obviously Mendelssohn knew better than I. The finale uses Bible texts (I cannot identify them more precisely than that) sung by two soprano soloists, a tenor soloist and a full choir. There is more than a little bit of homage paid to Lutheran chorale in the finale ('Nun danket alle Gott' gave me goosebumps), but the high points for me are the soprano solos and the two-soprano duet. The radiant Anne Schwanewilms is the prime soloist, joined in the duet by Petra-Maria Schnitzer. The stalwart tenor soloist is Peter Seiffert. I am less impressed with the sung finale than with what went before, but I have to say that the present performance is beautifully done and satisfying for what it is.
Sound (PCM stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS 5.1) is demonstration quality. Videography is excellent; the editor clearly was very familiar with the score and the intercutting is expert. The sung texts are available in subtitles in English, German, French and Spanish. There is an eight-minute interview with Chailly and various other Gewandhaus personnel speaking of his accession to the conductorship of the orchestra. TT=121 mins