Gurzenich & Roth deliver an evening of high drama in Amsterdam

Staged as part of the Robeco Summer nights series, the impressive Gurzenich Orchestra of Cologne led by their energetic maestro François-Xavier Roth, performed a highly enjoyable programme which was delivered with panache to a full house at Amsterdam’s famous Concertgebouw building.

Tracing their origins all the way back to 1827, this orchestra has been responsible for a number of notable world premieres of the works of Brahms, Strauss & Mahler.

Offering a programme which contained 3 familiar and comfortable choices straight from the standard repertoire, the concert began with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture, a vivid and pictorial depiction of the composers’ boat trip to Fingal’s Cave in the Scottish Highlands. Written in 1830, the work is considered by many to be an early tone poem.

Also known as “Fingal’s Cave,” the Hebrides overture is a piece which calls for marked variances in volume, tempo and orchestral palette; the music swells and deflates as the waters that Mendelssohn sailed through and Roth here proved to be a more than capable interpreter in his endeavours. Displaying a great deal of kinetic energy, he twisted and turned, gesticulated passionately and appeared to live and breathe the music. One notable factor under Roth’s direction is that the entire violin section were all stood rather than seated. The intended effect on their playing whilst not immediately obvious did indeed lead to a clean and pure sound emanating from the strings throughout the evening. The 2nd theme, sung by the cello and which has a yearning, optimistic quality was rendered beautifully here. One small drawback to note was at full (tutti) volume, the added weight of the trumpets resulted in a rather muddied effect, meaning that some of the textural clarity was lost. Nonetheless, Roth had his orchestra well drilled with a unifying approach that delivered synchronised accents where they were requested in the score. The recycled theme later appeared in the form of a clarinet solo and was soft and gentle. Melodised gracefully, this melody was slow to unfold and speak its’ piece – but when the sudden pick up and subsequent hurtle to the finish later came, the orchestra did it justice, closing with a graceful diminishing B minor chord.

The 2nd piece of the evening was Mozart’s first flute concerto in G major K313, performed by tonight’s soloist Emmanuel Pahud. We were provided with an acute visual marker having “skipped back” approximately 50 years in time which allowed us to see a reduction in the size of the orchestra.

Mozart’s first concerto for the flute written back in 1778, this was a performance high in both confidence and fluency. Pahud proving himself to be a leading flautist who provided a convincing argument of the ease with which he delivered some highly intricate and virtuosic passages of writing. Every trill, every ornamentation deftly dispatched with aplomb. The balance between soloist and orchestra can be easily lost, but the musicians maintained just the right trade off throughout – easier said than done considering the delicacy of Mozart’s writing. The slow movement’s opening motif made one wonder whether Johann Strauss might have gained the necessary spark of inspiration he required to go on and write his Blue Danube Waltz given the close resemblance.

Fittingly, the finale deserved a blockbuster and the collective appetite was appropriately sated with an excellent account of Beethoven’s dramatic 5th Symphony. Quite possibly the most famous opening notes in the entirety of classical music were a little rushed (perhaps there was a sense of trying too hard to provide a different interpretation) but that small criticism aside, this was a strong and assured performance.

It variously contained the full range of Beethovian ingredients:- power yet subtlety, fury yet nuance. The timpanist appeared to take great pleasure in performing his key role, whilst the conductor Roth looked at times to be electrified by the music, his body thrashing in all directions as he implored the orchestra to give yet more.

It has been said by many professional musicians that performing Beethoven is as exhausting as a full physical workout. On this evidence, it is easy to concur with that sentiment. This was one of the better live performances this reviewer has seen of Beethoven’s iconic work – during the 2nd movement, the prominent cello voices were breathy and expansive but never ponderous; indeed the tone of the strings was vivid and full of colour. Roth counter-balanced his impatient, attacca tendencies with the occasional surprising, but welcome lingering pause.

All of this served merely to sustain, if not further increase the unfolding drama. Particularly well-handled was the slow and deliberate build-up to the final blaze of glorious C major fanfare in the final movement. The audience held full attention, to the degree where it might have been possible to hear a pin drop. Ultimately, the spirit of what Beethoven wanted to convey was captured convincingly and served to remind us of the tremendous emotional power of this most famous of symphonies.