One of the very first posts I wrote for this site was in praise of a NYC visit by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra: the oldest orchestra in the world (founded in 1743) and, without exception, one of the finest. The reason you probably haven't heard of them is because they were locked for decades behind the Iron Curtain without the ability to tour outside Germany, or even play in a permanent concert hall. (Their own hall was bombed in WWII.)
The last time the LGO was in town, they blew me away with a performance of Mahler's 5th led by their then-new music director, Riccardo Chailly, who had just completed a 16 year run with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Chailly returned to Carnegie with the LGO this past weekend, and all evidence shows that the relationship has only deepened. (Chailly just signed a contract extension that will keep him in Leipzig through 2015, so clearly he's doing something right.)
Sunday's matinee opened with a performance of Chopin's first Piano Concerto, commemorating the 200th birthday of the composer (which was Monday.) Taking in the work's elegant lyricism and emotional maturity, it blew me away to think that Chopin was only 19 when he wrote it. (Aside from a 2nd concerto he wrote concurrently, Chopin spent the rest of his life writing exclusively for solo piano.) Montreal-native Louis Lortie played the solo part with just the right grace and reserve, throwing in one of the composer's nocturnes as an encore. (Speaking of Chopin, the World Financial Center is holding a week-long series of recitals this week on five pianos scattered throughout the Winter Garden.)
As fine as the Chopin was, this orchestra made it's name with the works of German composers, so it was only fitting they finished with Brahms' sunny 2nd symphony. Chailly used a score but rarely glanced at it, instead focusing on coaxing everything he could out of his hugely-skilled but deeply traditional players. The end result was nothing short of astonishing, with everyone firing on all cylinders: the brass was sharp and loud all the way to the back, the timpani crisp and clean, the strings bristling with energy. Chailly was like a wild stallion on the podium, full of genuine passion and unbridled emotion that continued straight through the encore of Beethoven's "Egmont" overture. The crowd went absolutely bonkers after both, rightfully so.