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MUSIC / High romance: Anthony Payne on two great European orchestras at the Barbican Centre

The Barbican Centre's Great Orchestras of the World series brought two of Europe's finest to the Barbican Hall last week. The Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra has had a tradition of performing the German early and high Romantics ever since it was conducted by Mendelssohn and Brahms. It possesses a clear, bright sound and a unanimity of address to rhythm and texture which are uniquely suited to that repertory, and on Thursday night it gave beautifully poised and committed performances of pieces by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann under its Kapellmeister Kurt Masur.

No matter how fine its conductor, the great orchestra always brings a general awareness to its playing for which it alone is responsible, the kind of alertness to internal balance and to complementary phrasing and dynamics on the part of each player that characterises the finest chamber music performances. It was by such means that the Leipzig orchestra gave exquisite shape and tone to Mendelssohn's overture A Midsummer Night's Dream. The glowing sonority of the opening wind harmonies transported us into a magic world which came alive in gossamer fancies when the violins entered.

The orchestra was in no less perfect communion with the majestic lyricism, drama and sheer high spirits of Brahms's Violin Concerto. In Viktoria Mullova we heard a commanding soloist willing to forgo an easy Romanticism in order to reveal the music's monumental power.

The Brahms concerto is one of a number of classic masterpieces which the Leipzig orchestra originally premiered, and the concert ended with another - Schumann's Second Symphony. For many years the Cinderella among Schumann's symphonies, castigated by critics for possessing a fussy scherzo, lopsided finale and a generally grey orchestral palette, the symphony can now be viewed differently. Incorporating one of the greatest of the 19th century's lyric adagios and a finale of inspired unorthodoxy, it deserves, and received under Masur's invigorating lead, playing of great expressive warmth and structural clarity.

Three days later the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra presented another Cinderella of a symphony, Mahler's Seventh, under Riccardo Chailly. Whether it will ever come to be admired as unreservedly as the rest of the canon is a moot point.

Even in such a perfectly paced and coloured interpretation as this, the last two movements seem to lack sure direction and expressive concentration. But if anyone could sell the symphony it would be Chailly and his


This was quite simply one of the finest interpretations imaginable. The first movement, extraordinary even by Mahler's standards for its timbral invention and all- embracing harmonic processes, was marvellous in its fire and clarity, the spectral scherzo eerily characterised. The virtuosity was evident, yet always served the symphony's expressive world.