sun 16/12/2018

Opolais, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH review - splendid and awful stretches | reviews, news & interviews

Opolais, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH review - splendid and awful stretches

Opolais, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons, RFH review - splendid and awful stretches

New work excepted, this second Southbank concert from Germans and Latvians shone

Kristine Opolais: true diva formTalya Vlasova

Latvia is fighting fit. The recent elections did not see the expected victory for the pro-Kremlin Harmony party; support for the European Union and NATO will be well represented. Last week the feisty Lavtian Ambassador to the UK, Baiba Braže, landed a perfectly diplomatic punch on the smug mug of our latest apology for a Foreign Secretary, taking former Remainer Hunt to task for his outrageous parallels between the EU and the Soviet gulag by reminding him how Latvia had suffered under the USSR and how eagerly it has adopted the best European values. And last night's second Royal Festival Hall concert from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and its new music director spotlighted three Latvians - conductor, singer and composer.

Let's get the negative aspect out of the way first, as the programme did. It was admirable of Andris Dzenītis (pictured below) to take the poweful mythology and ritual of his homeland into account in his Māra for large orchestra. But the sort of upward-sweeping angst we heard in the opening bars, drenched in the usual percussion suspects, gave notice of new-music business as usual; score-perusers should note and discard immediately. Every trick in the book seemed paraded at random. We did eventually hear two shots at a proper momentum, and the bass clarinet solo towards the end as the light splinters into fragments made at least one member of the orchestra's labours worthwhile. But hands up, anyone in the audience who found this genuinely engaging. I hope Nelsons doesn't develop a track record for picking duds for his premieres; the starter for his inaugural concert in Leipzig, Steffen Schleiermacher’s Relief, began and continued just as unpromisingly.

Andris DzenitisAt least these two concerts in London have been more aptly programmed to celebrate the arrival of the 21st Gewandhauskapellmeister. There was a gala-ish touch to the flamboyant arrival of his glamorous ex-wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, on the platform. The first-act arioso of unfortunate Lisa, besotted with card-obsessed Hermann in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, found her in true diva form, using long arms expressively for a theatrical kind of forlornness and doing an appropriate twirl to welcome the magic of a starlit night. Unfortunately the programme note writer seemed to have been informed of the wrong number, the one in Act Three, and with no texts - shame on the Southbank - the various stages and subtleties of Tatyana's Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin might have passed some of the audience by.

Here Opolais's extrovert expression came across as less truthful; nothing a good director wouldn't solve. "Less is more" would have been the advice for the acting out. But Opolais's now weighty dramatic soprano did scale down for the core moment of the 17-year-old girl's touching vulnerability, abetted by oboist Henrik Wahlgren. Violins were a bit ragged in their initial impetuousness, too. The Act Three Polonaise which came before had just the right swagger under Nelsons the dancer; his panache in sailing and landing on the strong first beat of each bar signalled that he might be a good candidate for Vienna's New Year's Day Concert.

And as a Mahler conductor, he is in a class of his own already. Not one with which I always agree; the mannerisms, the sometimes inorganic pulling-about, sometimes seem writ a bit too large. But his interpretation of the First Symphony truly exploded in the gigantic finale, with discipline and rhythmic focus, from his clearly welcoming orchestra, and the febrile leadership of Sebastian Breuninger is always a joy to watch. So, too, was the dedicated work of second timpanist Xizi Wang from Leipzig's Mendelssohn Orchesterakadamie - the first time I've ever seen a woman on timps (and why so, one wonders?)

Above all, Nelson's establishing of a very different mood for each movement made one wonder afresh at the youngish Mahler's daring back in the late 1880s. Perhaps the funeral-march rounds on the tune we know as "Frère Jacques" could have afforded to sound uglier, less artistic, from their accomplished "singers", double bass especially; but the dream idyll at the heart of the movement was so rapt, the gauzes of the natural world in the first movement so poetic, the stomping scherzo so earthy. The first horn wasn't on best form, but that apart - magnificent. It's good news that the team will be back before long.

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