The Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, East Germany, founded in 1741, is one of the oldest continuously performing ensembles in the world. The orchestra, under the direction of music director Kurt Masur, is in the midst of a major North American tour that takes it to Albany, N.Y., March 6, Ottawa March 8, and Montreal March 9, 10, and 11. In the middle of the tour, the orchestra was heard in four all-Brahms concerts here in New York, of which I heard two.
The Gewandhaus (literally ``cloth house,'' after the structure that was its home until 1981) has boasted a large number of composers as its music directors, of whom none was so influential as Felix Mendelssohn. Under his baton, the orchestra's attention was focused on neglected composers of the past. It was Mendelssohn who performed Bach's ``St. Matthew Passion'' in 1829 and started the Bach revival that has continued unabated to this day.
Maestro Masur, who has headed the ensemble since 1970, is well known here from recordings as well as numerous guest appearances with major American orchestras. He is a no-nonsense conductor who uses no baton. His gestures are emphatic, even gruff, as if he were subduing a rough-and-tumble ensemble. And that is just how the Gewandhaus tended to play for him both nights.
This is not a suave, creamy orchestra. The strings can be wiry, the winds thin and wavery, the brass edgy and tenuous. Yet it has character. And when all the players suddenly connect with their maestro and make fervent music together, it can be quite thrilling.
Unfortunately, this happened only intermittently. For instance, the Fourth Symphony is full of pathos, sadness, and a certain sense of resignation that must be brought forth. There was a flash of it in the deceptively happy third movement, which indicated where the orchestra could have taken this performance had Mr. Masur been willing.
Two concertos were included on these two programs. Garrick Ohlsson was heard in the First Piano Concerto, and Kyung-Wha Chung performed the Violin Concerto. Mr. Ohlsson set a tone of earnest if undaring excellence in the piano work, and Masur responded in like fashion. One could quibble about the tone of the B"osendorfer piano, which thinned out distressingly in most of the climaxes, but at least one felt Brahms was honestly served.
In the Violin Concerto, the usually remarkable and elegant Miss Chung seemed determined to take a highly personalized, one might say eccentric, view of the score. Her energy and enthusiasm in the beginning of the piece seemed to inspire the conductor and orchestra to their most impassioned musicmaking of the two concerts. But her confidence in her approach soon ebbed, and with it, the commitment of conductor and orchestra.
Despite the problems with both evenings, this is clearly an interesting orchestra. One could not help feeling that the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall highlighted the ensemble's weakest aspects, and that in more felicitous acoustics conductor and players would challenge themselves to the sort of consistent heights one expects from this historically rich ensemble.