Leipzig, home of the Gewandhaus orchestra for 250 years, is on the up; and why not, if its northerly neighbour Berlin is bold enough to risk its all on a British conductor? Bringing some of their home-grown produce to London, the Gewandhaus band and their town's mayor, plus their director Herbert Blomstedt, stopped at the Barbican to display their local talent, which includes Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn.
The afternoon had begun at St Giles, Cripplegate, with Michael Schönheit, the Gewandhaus organist since 1986, playing Bach's C minor Fantasia and Fugue in a way that at first suggested he and the instrument had yet to become better acquainted. Even so, his crisp staccato in a fairly dry acoustic ensured joyfully audible polyphony here and in the prelude of "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele", though the choice of tremulous stops for the chorale proved an error of judgement in an otherwise agreeably registered recital.
Capping a dutiful Schumann fugue on BACH with Mendels-sohn's Sixth Sonata, "Vater unser im Himmelreich", Schönheit came into his own with bright, splashy chords and deft pedal manoeuvres quelled by a serene, triple-time coda. In its turn, this prepared us for a driven yet tender account of Schubert's C minor Quartet played by the orchestral principals, who sounded at least the equal of most current British ensembles. They sought and found a perfect formal balance in the novelette-scherzo of Schumann's A major Quartet, and the passionate aria for strings that followed was delivered in terms of a matchless instrumental bel canto.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra and soloist Alfredo Perl struck a further blow for Mendelssohn that evening at the Barbican with his rarely heard Second Piano Concerto. It would have been easy for them to programme a more popular work by this composer (Midori had been playing in the hall that very day). In the event, the risk was rewarded by a piece whose intriguing ways with post-Beethoven concerto style only deepened one's regard for a figure whose depth goes so much further than the gossamer surface of critical cliché. In the presto finale, Blomstedt's firm hand held Perl's sometimes garrulous pianism in check; this was psychologically wise, as the pianist's challenge here is to make the last chord, scored without him, sound just.
In Blomstedt's sure hands, Brahms's First Symphony offered stoical truth rather than romantic mystery, with grinding timpani and pungent oboe and clarinet solos setting the mood. If the cost was stiffness at times in the dialogues of wind and horns, the bonus was a momentum in the outer movements that proceeded without let or hindrance, yet also preserved the quieter moments intact.