CONCERT REVIEW | Rihm & Bruckner | Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Gatti | RAH, London | "Gatti’s care for every note, for all its good intentions, felt strained at times and overdone"

United Kingdom: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (Conductor). Reviewed at Royal Albert Hall, London on 1 September 2017.

BBC Proms 2017, Prom 64

Wolfgang Rihm, In-Schrift
Anton Bruckner, Symphony No 9 in D minor

Daniele Gatti, ©Marco Broggreve
With one of the world’s finest ensembles playing one of the most sublime symphonies of the 19th century with their chief conductor, it was always going to be an evening of intrigue.

The sonority Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conjured for Bruckner’s 9th symphony – played in its 3-movements form – was admirable in its sheer depth and opulence. The strings rarely precluded a sense of tight sinew underneath its velvety and shimmering warmth. The gold-brazen blossom of the brass was full-bodied and with nobility, and the woodwinds, notably the flute, were succulent in their scintillating clarity. Blend was the key word of the evening; a sense of organic unity was present, and through a chamber music-like clarity, details of the score constantly came into light.

From the beginning of the first movement, the manner the brass and woodwinds pierced through the slowly sewn sea of strings, informed the audiences that this performance would be no laissez faire reading. With Gatti’s penchant for vibrato-driven songfulness and for the caressing of each note, the Gesangsperiode – i.e. the second subject group – had an unusually soft if not intimate dimension in its conception. Such sensibility translated especially well in the quiet passages. In building up to the tutti, Gatti’s intentions were carefully crafted and controlled. Each orchestral unison was expressed as a logical sequence of what came before – Bruckner symphonies’ characteristic suddenness of massive blocks of sound, aka. ‘wall of sound’, was lessened of its cathedral-like angularity. Yet it was not only the sound itself. In a movement that was taken with extra breadth, Gatti fancied further slowing down sections that he felt deserved more attention or more lyricism.

Gatti was no alien to weight and contrasts, elements explored in the second movement. Taken in a slower tempo that usual, the accented outer sections, with deft manipulations of pauses and rubati, were colored with thick brushstrokes. In comparison, the fleeting beauty of the trio section was painted with a touch of lightness. The decision to accelerate in the lyrical section of the trio was especially effective in introducing a kind of airiness.

The transcendental beauty of the Adagio is known to have moved even the most unlikely of candidates. Stravinsky, for all his Mozartian neoclassicism, for example, considered the movement to be “one of the most truly inspired of all works in symphonic form.” Webern of the Second Viennese School, too, was no less touched. In Gatti’s execution, much of the characteristics of the other two movements were there; the orchestral tutti were well-sculpted, and the brass and strings formed a minor miracle in their rounded blend. Interpretational pauses became frequent, as the work moved toward its fateful coda. If Gatti’s swift take of the Adagio, felt through the relative tempi of the preceding movements, implied that the movement was not to be viewed symbolic of a sort of spiritual finality – as conductors often do – the coda, which was executed with a new found pace, all but confirmed this view.

Overall, Gatti’s lyrical sensibility and control added onto Bruckner’s 9th symphony a sense of conviction and character. The thematic transitions felt elaborately thought through. Nevertheless, at times I could not help wondering whether the performance was a tad bit too deliberate. For my taste, Gatti’s care for every note, for all its good intentions, felt strained at times and overdone. Consequentially, the performance somewhat echoed Bernstein’s Bruckner 9th recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, minus the existential brooding.

A transcendental Bruckner experience necessitates a form of frightful exaltation, whereby an external force takes over the conscious and the deliberate of the listener in its raw strength. In such context, Gatti’s will for control may have ultimately circumscribed the elements of shock and awe inherent within great performances of a Bruckner symphony. Alas, in discussing the nature of the sublime, Edmund Burke argued that that Deity is a source of power so immense as to go beyond our capabilities of reason and imagination. Therefore, upon considering such grand unknownable, our ideas of Deity must include “a mixture of salutary fear”. In a work that is dedicated to "dem lieben Gott" (“the beloved God”), Burke’s view on sublimity could not have been more relevant.

[The article was originally published on the Bruckner Journal]

Young-Jin Hur