To call the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra a venerable institution would be an understatement. Its origins date to 1743; in 1781, when the USA was just five years old, it gave its first concert in the trading house of Leipzig’s textile merchants, the building from which the orchestra takes its name. It premiered Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto in 1811, and from 1835 to 1847 its distinguished Kapellmeister was no less than Felix Mendelssohn. So it was appropriate that Beethoven and Mendelssohn should be featured on the orchestra’s rewarding Celebrity Series program at Symphony Hall Friday, under its current Kapellmeister, Riccardo Chailly.
With its first and second violins antiphonally seated and its cellos centered, the orchestra brought a rich, ripe timbre to Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture. Inspired by a visit the composer made to a basalt cave on the Inner Hebrides isle of Staffa in 1829, the piece (also known as “Fingal’s Cave”; Mendelssohn never quite made up his mind) can easily sound picturesque and pretty. Chailly underlined its power and mystery, adding a touch of hysteria and even finding some pre-echoes of Bruckner.
Hard as it is to believe now, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was not an instant success at its 1806 premiere; it didn’t become a concert fixture until a 12-year-old Joseph Joachim performed it in London in 1844 with an orchestra conducted by, yes, Mendelssohn. There’s some militant posturing and a few disconcerting D-sharps, but for the most part the concerto is soft and sweet, with a hymn for a second movement and a high-spirited rondo to finish. Soloist Nikolaj Znaider gave a ravishing but not revelatory reading that at times seemed to be more about the violin than the music. His encore, the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2, showed greater insight.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 was actually his second in order of composition. Like the “Hebrides,” it got a searing interpretation from Chailly, moving from the Palestrinian polyphony of the introduction through the “Dresden Amen” to the triumphant Protestant finale in a way that transcended denominationalism. It was intriguing to hear the original finale, though I missed the massive statement of the chorale that ends the revised version.
The encore brought more Mendelssohn, from his Incidental Music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a mercurial Intermezzo and a brightly tripping Wedding March.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.