Thursday, 19 March 2009

RPO/Gatti – Mozart and Beethoven, 18 March 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Symphony no.41 in C major, ‘Jupiter’, KV 551
Beethoven – Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Daniele Gatti’s final London concert as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra presented, aptly enough, the symphonic swansongs of Mozart and Beethoven. There was much to recommend these performances but I wonder whether I was alone in wishing that he had bade farewell with his penultimate concert, a truly devastating performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

The Jupiter symphony opened somewhat unpromisingly, with tentative violins, apparently unsure whether they should be aping ‘period’ manners, or rather mannerisms. However, such fears were banished once they began more freely using vibrato and adopting a wider range of dynamic contrasts, encouraged, it would seem, from the podium. The repeated exposition was much better than the first time around, the second subject presented with echt-Mozartian charm. Gatti imparted a strong rhythmic sense throughout, at times eliciting an almost Klemperer-like sturdiness to the bass line. Contrapuntal clarity and direction enabled one to understand that the contrapuntal miracle of the finale should not be viewed in isolation but as a culmination of the work. In the Andante cantabile, Gatti’s experience in opera doubtless assisted his shaping of long, vocal lines, although I have heard many ‘operatic’ conductors fail utterly in this respect. Phrases were carefully shaped, without fussiness. There was no nonsense about taking the music at breakneck speed; here one could bask in its utter loveliness. Sometimes, I wished that the strings would dig more deeply; there remained occasions when they sounded a little inhibited. The minuet was graceful, poised, and possessed of a nice swing. It was taken at a gentle one-to-a-bar but was not rushed. Phrases clearly answered one another, something which ought to go without saying but sadly not. The trio was also nicely swung, its minor-key episode making its presence felt without standing out unduly. Again, the imitative phrases of the finale were presented as answering one another, adding to an admirable sense of freshness and vitality. Any inhibitions on the part of the string section were now banished, leading to an entirely convincing account of this movement. The contrapuntal nature of so much of the composer’s material was brought out, enabling – as I remarked with respect to the first movement – the miracle of the coda’s quintuple invertible counterpoint to register as a cumulative, climactic tour de force rather than simply appear, as a deus ex machina. The movement boasted a real sense of triumph: exciting yet always dignified.

After the interval came the Ninth Symphony. (There is no need to say by whom.) Furtwängler has a lot to answer for here. A few months ago, I was talking to a distinguished philosopher and critic. We agreed that, after hearing Furtwängler, in whichever of his recorded accounts, no subsequent performance, not even Klemperer’s, matched up. One hopes against hope, of course, but nor did this, despite a number of musical virtues.

The first movement was in many ways most impressive, certainly when compared with the general standard of what one hears today. Gatti’s reading certainly gave the sense, as Furtwängler did so unerringly, of hearing the music as a whole, but there were times when he might have yielded, which went for very little, if anything at all. Wind instruments – woodwind as well as the blazing brass – could readily be heard without any sacrifice to depth of string tone. The latter could never fool one into believing that one was hearing one of the great German orchestras but, for a London band, it was not bad at all. The clarity of contrapuntal writing that had marked the Mozart symphony was once again apparent here. If one considered the movement as a demonic and at time lyrical rather than metaphysical drama it worked well, but is this really what the Ninth should be? There was fury throughout and the development section evinced a sense of titanic struggle, but what does this mean? One might not be able to answer that with words – although it is arguable that Beethoven eventually tries to do so – but one should certainly try with music.

The scherzo was fast, but energetic rather than mercilessly hard-driven. Matt Perry took his chance to shine on the kettledrums and ran with it, musically as well as theatrically. I felt a little short-changed by the lack of relaxation in the trio, although somewhat paradoxically, this made for relatively light relief in its games of counterpoint. Still, if one is not going to be Furtwängler, there is no point in straining for simulated ‘profundity’.

One might say much the same about the slow movement. But could this really qualify as Adagio molto e cantabile? Cantabile, yes: it was lyrical throughout, flowing beautifully, if hardly plumbing the metaphysical depths. The lyricism was rapt in a fashion that recalled – or rather presaged – the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a work in which Gatti has excelled. But ultimately I think it really was too fast for adagio, let alone adagio molto. Beethoven’s variation form was more clearly delineated than is often the case, with no sacrifice to the overall line. There was an unfortunate horn moment but these things happen. More troubling was the sense of a pleasant intermezzo, a harking back maybe to the Pastoral Symphony’s ‘Scene by the Brook’, instead of the revelatory experience that this movement can, or perhaps once could, provide.

The finale began like the proverbial bat out of Hell, but should we not be vouchsafed a glimpse of Hell itself rather than a mere creature fleeing therefrom? There was, however, a nice hush for the initial ’cello/double-bass statement of the theme. Again, it flowed beautifully, though one might wonder whether that in itself is really the point. The intervention ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’ evinced a splendid sense of rhetoric. Unfortunately, superb as his – and the other soloists’ – diction might have been, David Wilson-Johnson was not so impressive at hitting the actual notes. Indeed, the soloists often seemed to put rhetorical values ahead of ‘purely’ musical ones. They also proved more than a little ‘operatic’ in an alien, Italianate sense. There is, I admit, a good case for discerning irony in Beethoven’s writing. As Stephen Hinton notes in an interesting article (‘Not “which” tones? The crux of Beethoven’s Ninth,’ in 19th-Century Music, vol.22 no.1 (Summer 1998), pp. 61-77), ‘the contamination of the instrumental music by operatic gestures and by words and the nature of those gestures – the recitative of the bass instruments and the baritone’s exaggerated melismas – all reinforce ... [a] sense of self-consciousness’ (p.69). This is not, however, what happened here. The soloists were not ironically operatic. The Ninth Symphony can justly be seen, in some though by no means all senses, to mark a staging-post on the road to Wagnerian music drama; it is certainly not a link between Beethoven and Verdi, or indeed Rossini, to whose music Beethoven nursed considerable antipathy. I have no such reservations, however, concerning the work of the London Symphony Chorus, which was, quite simply, stunning. The weight of choral tone was all one could have wished for and every word was not only heard but meant. There was an apt militaristic, marching character to the ‘Turkish’ music, which too often sounds merely bizarre. After that, the movement proceeded on its way, certainly exultant, often exciting.

But is this all that the Ninth means or can mean to us today? What I fear is that we have, in a sense more monstrous even that of Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, revoked – or perhaps, worse, in this administered society, neutralised – its message. I pray that it will not require a second coming for Wilhelm Furtwängler to prove me wrong.