Leipzig Orchestra plays in a style rarely heard


The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was 97 years old when Felix Mendelssohn became its conductor in 1840.

At 250 years of age, it is Europe's oldest orchestra, and its concert Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center under its music director Kurt Masur made one wish that its traditions continue to be vibrant as long as Western symphonic music is performed.

Orchestral playing in Leipzig has not surrendered to the internationalization of style to which orchestras in Western Europe and North America long ago succumbed.

When Masur gave the first downbeat in Beethoven's concert-opening "Egmont Overture," the chord that followed lagged behind the conductor by almost a second.

This is an orchestra that does not play with the clean attacks and precision that mark the work of the best orchestras from Berlin to Los Angeles.

That's intentional.

What might initially have seemed a slight fuzziness of sound to ears accustomed to Western orchestras was also responsible for warmth and lushness that orchestras with shorter performance traditions simply do not produce.

It is not that the Leipzigers do not watch Masur -- they do -- but that they also play as if they listen to each other.

This gives their music-making a chamber-music quality, and it's not by accident that Masur, who is also the music director of the New York Philharmonic, has been working to elicit such performances in New York.

The fine performance of the Beethoven was followed by an equally warm and dramatic reading of Schumann's Second Symphony.

There is a myth that German conductors lead music more slowly than those from other countries. What started this myth is anybody's guess.

But Masur is an often tempestuous, impulsive musician and the Schumann symphony, while full of feeling and majestic gestures, swept along, with even the third movement adagio taken at a faster clip than usual.

If the cultivated sound in the Beethoven and Schumann left some listeners with the impression that the Leipzigers could not play loudly, that was corrected by the performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" that followed intermission.

Unlike many conductors and orchestras, who tend to play all kinds of repertory at the same dynamic level, Masur and his Leipzig players know the difference between early German and late Russian romanticism.

There was nothing routine about this performance -- including the fact that what was heard was not the familiar Ravel orchestration but one by Sergei Gortchakov that brought the music closer to the composer's piano original and that (for once) made it sound Russian rather than French.

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