First published in The Herald on 29 August, 2016
It’s a lofty orchestra that chooses Beethoven’s Egmont Overture as an encore. This is music about a Flemish resistance leader who was executed during the Spanish Inquisition: its spirit is violent, indignant, defiant, hardly your classic cheery add-on. But it brought out the fiercest playing we’d heard yet from the Leipzig Gewandhaus and for that it was definitely welcome. Because although the past two nights had showcased the exceptional discipline and elegance of this ensemble, the suaveness of its phrasing, the sleekness of its blend, what felt missing was the kind of abandon and dangerous attack that finally arrived in those brooding Egmont chords.
But it was late in coming. The rest of this second Gewandhaus programme under the graceful hand of 89-year-old conductor Herbert Blomstedt was beautifully turned out but less than thrilling. The refinement that had made Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony sound so lucid the previous night now felt sedate in Beethoven’s Leonora No 2 — the lone trumpet was duly heraldic from the choir stalls, the leader played an admirably polished violin solo, but I wanted less politeness and more of the score’s volcanic force.
Likewise we got a well-behaved reading of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Andras Schiff as a supremely well-tempered soloist. This is one of the most explosive concertos ever written — subversive in form, radical in colour palette, audacious for its sheer power — but in Schiff’s hands it was recondite and restrained. It was hard not to admire the pearly articulation of his octaves and the way he carried the last chord of the first movement into a swift, simple Adagio, but the finale’s restrained elasticity felt like a very organised kind of fun.