Saturday 19 May 2012

Philharmonia/Gatti - Wagner and Mahler, 17 May 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Wagner – Parsifal: Prelude to Act I and ‘Good Friday Music’
Mahler – Symphony no.5

Philharmonia Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Let there be no beating about the bush: this was a great concert. Taking time off from conducting Falstaff at Covent Garden – why can we not hear him there in Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg…? – Daniele Gatti led the Philharmonia Orchestra in excerpts from Parsifal and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Parsifal was instantly recognisable as ‘his’ Parsifal from Bayreuth. Not only was the Prelude ‘lit from behind’, in Debussy’s doubtless over-used and yet essential phrase; it emerged in its opening free-floating, transcendent, though that quality would be dialectically opposed by increasing striving. (One might point here to the dramatic conflict between Hegelian and Schopenhauerian tendencies and influences in Wagner’s thought.) The sound Gatti drew from the Philharmonia might have been that of a great Continental orchestra. String depth and sonority, woodwind purity, quasi-liturgical brass certainty: all not sounded wonderful but played a dramatic role born of lengthy experience in the theatre. I was compelled to want to tell Nietzsche that I was proud to be a Wagnerian – and then remembered how, following years of a priori abuse, it was hearing this Prelude that utterly bowled over the apostate philosopher. The ‘Good Friday Music’ rarely seems to me a well-advised ‘bleeding chunk’, though I suppose that it is inevitable conductors and orchestras will wish to play it in the concert hall from time to time. Insofar as it makes sense by itself, it sounded both questing and consoling, quite mesmerising. Gatti shaped its contours meaningfully – again, insofar as he could – in both motivic and harmonic terms. However, I could not help missing everything that should have gone in between.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, like the Parsifal excerpts, was conducted without a score. The excellence of Alastair Mackie’s opening trumpet solo – I suspect he will have played it a good few times, but am sure it will always remain a challenge – offered a good sign of things to come. Tempo, which is so much more than speed, seemed just right, the dialectic Gatti traced and brought to life between onward tread and Weltschmerz suggestive of the first movement of the Sixth. Slight pulling back on the beat ensured that progress sounded hard work, as it should; and then, he pressed on, blending fury and defiance. This was a highly dramatic reading, utterly gripping, as much so even as Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated Vienna account. The closing bars exhibited a true sense of the apocalyptic, looking forward to late works such as the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Symphonies. A furious attack led us straight into the second movement, another hallmark of this performance being the keen characterisation of the symphony’s three parts (movements one and two/three/four and five). The Philharmonia’s strings really dug into the music, cellos especially noteworthy in that respect. Mahler’s mood here sounded akin to the bitter drunkenness of the first movement of Das Lied von der Erde, that mood coming to contrast with an almost Wagnerian eroticism (Tristan). Violin solos from leader Andrew Haveron impinged upon our consciousness as if fleeting ghosts from the Fourth Symphony. And, in this of all movements, there were plenty of false dawns, to confound – or perhaps even to fulfil? – our hopes. Above all, Gatti’s dramatic sweep, his sense of the whole, made this a special reading. A hint of Lisztian bombast at the emergence of the chorale, soon of course to be denied, made perfect sense in this context, the Philharmonia, and not just its brass, sounding magnificent here.

The scherzo’s opening brought another great contrast with its Alpine bucolics, though they would soon be questioned by nagging disintegrative counterpoint, a properly Adornian dialectic. In a sense, Mahler’s celebrated desire for a symphony to encompass a world was taken further: this movement appeared to do so in itself – though, of course, there is no ‘in itself’, its pivotal function making it what it is. Would-be carefree charm and an echt-Viennese lilt made themselves felt. Counterpoint seemed to be attempting to become something less Mephistophelean, more constructive: could Mahler yet become Bach? No answers, quite rightly, were forthcoming, for this is such a radically inconclusive movement, as captured to perfection in the strivings to life of that extraordinary pizzicato dance of death – or should that be strivings to death of a dance of live? And those final bars: the movement in microcosm, almost in absurdum. They terrified and elated. Mahler is not a drug, as I occasionally feared during my teenage years; he is a thousand times more powerful.

Forget silly arguments about the Adagietto. It can work – or not – in various ways, according to the context of the performance. Here, it was a warm, erotic, though anything but decadent, love-song. Beautifully shaped, poignantly sincere, one could not separate ‘work’ and ‘performance’. Bright sounds from the woodwind emerged from its conclusion, the third part of the symphony taken, like the first, without a break. Bachian lessons seemed well learned – or were they parodied, a dubious praise of ‘hohen Verstandes’? An either/or approach is to miss the point, which Gatti certainly did not. Mahler’s contrapuntal ingenuity and drive was certainly enjoyed. Radical discontinuities were voiced – this is such a tricky movement, in such a tricky symphony – but in dialectic with a sense of the whole. Battle was not nearly so easily won as it is in many performances, a Beethovenian journey from darkness to light no longer possible. This was a distinguished conclusion to a distinguished performance. After so many disappointments during unnecessary ‘anniversary’ performances, Mahler in his second century truly became special once again.