Thursday 15 January 2009

RPO/Gatti - Mahler, 14 January 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.9

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

I have been privileged to attend two performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that have verged upon greatness: from Sir Simon Rattle with the London Symphony Orchestra, and Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin. In one of his final performances as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniele Gatti did not join their company; he surpassed it. Orchestrally, there may have been a very few minor blemishes, Moreover, the RPO, even at its best as here, may not quite rank with the aforementioned orchestras, although the gap was not so wide as many might suspect; it could also have done with just a few more strings. Nevertheless, Gatti’s reading swept all before it, going beyond very fine performances I have heard from him and this orchestra of Mahler’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.

If there was occasional slight wiriness from the violins earlier on in the first movement, the RPO achieved a rounded tone for its climaxes. The sound was appropriately string-saturated, though certainly not to the exclusion of opportunities well taken for solos, the woodwind in particular looking forward to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Indeed, an expressionistic menace, to which brass interjections and powerful timpani blows contributed, characterised the entire movement: not exaggerated but, by the same token, not underplayed. Tempo fluctuations were well handled, never abrupt, and nothing was rushed; more than that, one had the sense of an epic unfolding, as if in one breath. Silences played their haunting part, yet they never marked caesuras; that miraculous single breath went unbroken. For an onward tread marked Gatti’s reading of this movement, recalling the procession of souls in the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, albeit bathed in the apparent world-weariness of Parsifal’s harmonic language. When the bells sounded, both of these earlier works were recalled, brought together, and transmuted into something old yet new. Towards the end, Emer McDonough’s newly strange flute solo stopped just short of crossing over from Mahler’s side of atonality to Berg’s; however, one could imagine that a stone’s throw might have changed everything. Seemingly subsiding into a nothingness that presaged the latter composer’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6, it was left to other instruments – violin, clarinet, and horn – to proffer some consolation in the final bars. Whatever were certain members of the audience thinking of when they applauded? (Sadly, they would twice turn out to be recidivists.)

From the opening bar of the second movement, Gatti displayed a strong sense of rhythm. Again, there was no question of rushing, rendering Mahler’s Ländler all the more rustic – and modernistically constructed. For the first episode, there was a nicely judged upward shift in tempo, yet this never came at the expense of rhythm and style. Relaxations were never abrupt, always telling. Before long, we heard nasty, expressionistic shrieks from the woodwind, again looking forward – though, of course, not so very far forward – to Schoenberg. Silences provided a sense of heart-stopping stillness until the ghostly marionettes resumed their play, coming to truly horrifying life – or should that be death? It was by now apparent that this was a great performance of the symphony, a realisation that crept upon me, rather as in some of Claudio Abbado’s Mahler performances, though perhaps a little less slow-burning. The close of the movement brought a similar sense of onward tread as that heard previously, yet it was now less world-weary, more a bringer of death. A fine example of this was the superb viola solo from Andrew Williams, suggestive of a more malign version of the Fourth Symphony’s scordatura fiddle.

In the Rondo-Burleske, the strings could not dig quite so deep as those of the Staatskapelle Berlin had for Barenboim, but they were not so very far off and their tone stood still closer to the expressionism of Wozzeck. Gatti’s rhythmic command was once again impeccable and I include harmonic rhythm in that observation. The savage counterpoint was truly nasty, akin to a Bergian Mahler Fifth – or Bach on acid. Sweetness came in the episodes but within limits. It remained a dubious sweetness and would be undermined afterwards and sometimes even simultaneously, for instance by Douglas Mitchell’s clarinet, straight out of Pierrot. There was a marionette-kinship with the second movement, for clearly, Gatti not only heard each movement in one, but the symphony as a whole. The terrible dances acquired an unstoppable force –which does not mean that the performance became inflexible, anything but. Vouchsafed an hallucinogenic vision of another world (the after-life?), this I found both beautiful and terrifying. Gatti understood that Mahler’s questions are metaphysical; the recent, Shostakovich-derived cheap thrills of Valery Gergiev in this repertoire could not have been more distant. And when the climax came, it was truly horrific. The subject – whoever or whatever that might be – attempted to escape, increasingly frantic; yet there was nowhere to hide. Implacable Fate proved the victor.

Then came the Adagio. The richness of tone in the violins’ opening phrase harked back to Parsifal and looked forward to the first movement of the unfinished Tenth. There was consolation in four-part comparatively diatonic harmony but this was a noble, strong account. Sentiment was not confused with sentimentality; there was still a fight to be had. Fate, however, was now more benign, allowing this extraordinary slow movement to unfold with inevitability towards something quite different from the conclusion of the Rondo-Burleske. Leader Simon Blendis’s violin solo exhibited an icy beauty, beneath which Mahler’s grand harmonic plan continued to work itself out – here, of course, in the surest of hands: Gatti’s. At times the espressivo nature of the strings’ vibrato threatened to become unbearable, as it should. Against this passionate warmth, we heard a still-beautiful spareness of death from the RPO’s woodwind. Brass and percussion brought us towards the precipice, enabling Mahler to cross over into another world, to somewhere we are not permitted to go. His progressive tonality leaves us unsure, even as we are consoled. The Second Viennese School, of whose music Gatti has proved an ardent advocate, is almost upon us. There is a Nietzschean sense of uncertain freedom, evoked in the following passage from The Gay Science:

... we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone upon us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’.

It was finally, understandably, as if Gatti – and Mahler – did not want to let go, yet ultimately must. This was shattering.