Daniele Gatti / Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Schumann / Beethoven
KKL, Lucerne, 2018-01-23
Last Summer, at the Lucerne Festival 2017, I heard Daniele Gatti (*1961, see Wikipedia for more information) for the first time. This was with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, led by Daniele Gatti since 2016. In the same year, Gatti also became artistic advisor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. This orchestra (see again Wikipedia for more information) emerged in 1997. Members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra which passed the age limit of that ensemble founded the MCO in cooperation with the late conductor Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014).
On its Website, the orchestra presents itself as “nomadic collective of passionate musicians uniting for specific tours in Europe and across the world”. Even more than 20 years after its foundation, the ensemble—a mid-size orchestra—still looks (predominantly) youthful. The musicians sat in an antiphonal setting: the two violin voices (10 + 8 players) facing each other at the front of the podium, 4 double basses at the rear left, followed by 8 cellos and 8 violas on the rear right.
The Migros chain of supermarkets has the contractual / constitutional obligation to spend 1% of their annual budget on culture. Within that, the Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent Classics” deals with the organization of concerts with classical music, trying to make classical music affordable to circles / people who would not normally attend concerts. Several times a year, the foundation invites artist (soloists, conductors, orchestras, etc.) for short concert tours to major concert venues in Switzerland (typically 1 – 3 concerts per tour).
So, this time, the foundation invited Daniele Gatti and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for a three-day tour (Lucerne, Zurich, Geneva). The programs on these tours naturally aren’t too challenging to the listener (as this would defeat the purpose). This time, the program included popular works from the classical and romantic repertoire, featuring works by Schumann and Beethoven.
The concert in the White Hall Lucerne’s KKL (Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre) was not sold out, but still reasonably well-attended, so the concert fulfilled the intended purpose. The audience definitely was different from the one that is encountered otherwise in this venue throughout the year.
Schumann: Overture to the Opera “Genoveva“, op.81
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote both the libretto, as well as the music for the four acts of his Opera “Genoveva”, op.81, between 1847 and 1848. The libretto is based on the medieval French saga of Geneviève (Genoveva) of Brabant, set in the 8th century. In parts, Schumann used texts from the tragedy “Genoveva” by Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813 – 1863), from 1843. The opera is not performed very often. The most popular part must be the overture that opened this concert. As usual, the overture gives an outline of the action in the stage work. It features a slow, preparatory introduction, followed by a more lively, dramatic main part:
Langsam (4/4, ♩=50) — Leidenschaftlich bewegt (2/2, 1/2=140)
It seems sensible and natural to start a concert with an overture: even if the associated stage work does not follow, it’s music that is intended for the beginning of a musical event. As the listener gets “into”B the music, he/she are also trying to experience how the orchestra and its conductor “work”, and how they work together. And indeed, that overture revealed a lot about the conductor, and about the “inner workings” of the orchestra.
Daniele Gatti is not relying on textbook techniques for controlling an orchestra. He does use a baton, but in general, he is conducting freely, modeling melodies and phrases with his movements, pointing out / suggesting key passages or motifs, dampening / gradually muting others. The rhythm, the metric beat is secondary, merely alluded to in his direction.
Interestingly, he did not seem to rely on active leadership by the musicians at the first desks. Certainly, a fair amount of rehearsing had been spent on this overture. But in the listener’s perception, he seemed to communicate with the ensemble as a whole, or with each and every musician in the orchestra individually. Almost as if he was pulling invisible threads. It was a pleasure to see that on the “receiving end”, the instrumentalists in the orchestra all showed extraordinary engagement and active participation. In all this, Gatti directed the concert without the help of a score, throughout.
Already the slow introduction demonstrated Gatti’s careful shaping, as well as the orchestra’s homogeneous and yet transparent soundscape, the clarity in articulation and phrasing.
Gatti’s experience in conducting opera became very obvious, e.g., in the way in which he could control, manage the build-up of tension. At the same time, such build-ups were controlled, never exceedingly theatrical. Particularly in the fast part (Leidenschaftlich bewegt, i.e., “passionately moved”), the music showed plasticity, was both urging and virtuosic. Yet, the musicians didn’t appear to aim for superficial, polished show-effects: the overture remained full of tension from beginning to end, in one single, big, dramatic arch. At the same time following, or rather anticipating, a libretto, a hidden, scripted drama.
Beethoven: Symphony No.4 in B♭ major, op.60
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Symphony No.4 in B♭ major, op.60 in 1806. I have posted information on this composition in a detailed comparison of several recordings in an earlier note, so here I’m just listing the movements:
- Adagio (2/2, ♩=66) — Allegro vivace (2/2, 1/1=80)
- Adagio (3/4, ♪=84)
- Allegro vivace (3/4, 3/4=100)
- Allegro ma non troppo (2/4, 1/2=80)
I. Adagio — Allegro vivace
Also the first movement clearly profited from Gatti’s opera experience, his sense for dramatic evolution—especially in the slow introduction. But also here, this wasn’t a mere show, never it gave the impression of virtuosity for its own sake. Rather, I sensed pure, natural musicality, joy of playing throughout the orchestra. Gatti avoided harsh contours, excesses in sharpness. Gatti listened carefully, didn’t ignore any of the highlights that blossomed out in the wind section (excellent instrumentalists throughout). At the same time, he kept an eye on the overall structure, didn’t over-emphasize individual details and highlights. The tempo felt natural throughout: fluent, not too fast, but also not too slow, never too heavy.
According to the famous conductor Bruno Walter (1876 – 1962), this Adagio is one of the most demanding, most challenging movements in all (classic and romantic) symphony literature. And this performance demonstrated why that is the case. The challenge isn’t primarily of technical nature: one could characterize it as “interplay of patience and perseverance”: one needs to stay calm (don’t ever rush!), yet never let the tension down. At the same time, one needs to keep an eye on the punctuated rhythm / motifs. One must not let the punctuated pairs degrade to triplets (and triplets do indeed also occur in the score!). All this seems trivial for a professional orchestra, but…
Already the basic tempo is critical. Here, the movement may have been a tad fast already at the beginning. At least after the initial bars, the punctuated motifs felt accurate throughout, there was barely ever a noticeable tendency to play triplets instead. However, at the point where the wind instruments take over the punctuated rhythm (and occasionally even before that), I observed a tendency to accelerate, for the tempo to “run away” (in my perception). This unfortunately led to a certain unrest in this otherwise serene, calm movement.
III. Allegro vivace
The Allegro vivace, a Scherzo-like movement, returned to an all-natural feeling in tempo and expression, with the two Trio segments (only gradually slower, following the Un poco meno Allegro annotation) giving the impression of (almost) chamber music, of an idyl in a small setting of wind instruments, with brief interjections / comments from the violins. Towards the end, the music gets somewhat louder and more dramatic, but Daniele Gatti keeps the surprisingly sudden ending short and concise, without unnecessary broadening.
IV. Allegro ma non troppo
The final movement is fast and challenging. It feels like a typical, virtuosic orchestral showpiece. Gatti didn’t push for the ultimate speed, rather let the orchestra freely indulge in musicality and joy of playing, from the beginning to the fulminant final bars. That said: the orchestra at the same time showed 100% engagement, focus and concentration. While not pushed in tempo and acuteness, the performance was definitely virtuosic, and the passing of motifs from one voice to the next was seamless, also between the two violin voices on opposite sides of the stage. The wind soloists, especially bassoon and clarinet have extremely virtuosic solos. The special applause that they received was well-deserved!
Also here, I have posted information on the composition in an earlier post: the Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.97, “Rhenish”, by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) also featured in a concert in Zurich, on 2016-12-14. The symphony has five movements:
- Lebhaft (3/4, 3/4=66)
- Scherzo: Sehr mäßig (3/4, ♩=100)
- Nicht schnell (4/4, ♪=116)
- Feierlich (4/4, ♩=54 — 3/2 – 4/2, 1/2=54)
- Lebhaft (2/2, 1/2=120)
Under Gatti’s direction, both the rhythmic contours and the tempo appeared somewhat moderated. Yes, the interpretation was really engaged. At the same time, it definitely avoided rhythmic exaggerations, any harshness in articulation, an excess in emphasis and rubato. Gatti’s focus was on phrases / arches, and expression. I found his interpretation to be classic rather than romantic—and certainly not too self-indulgent.
II. Scherzo: Sehr mäßig
The Scherzo starts in peacefully swaying rhythm, more elegantly flowing than in the heavy-minded melancholy that some associate with the “Rhenish character”. Soon, after the initial segment / theme, the music changes into semiquaver staccato sequences, which require good coordination within, as well as between the voices. The coordination was indeed excellent, but did not present itself as dead, polished precision. There certainly wasn’t any excess of any kind in this movement. I should also mention the excellent horn moments / highlights in this movement!
III. Nicht schnell
The central movement ts alternating between melancholy and some king of hesitant stride dance. To me, this was the weakest movement so far. It didn’t seem conclusive / convincing. In its mood, it felt like “hanging in mid-air”—as if the musicians could not make up their mind about how to tackle this music.
The annotation “Feierlich” (solemn) applies to a slow movement with polyphonic horn and trombone voices: it felt almost religious and strongly reminded me of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.5 (“Reformation”). Gatti took this as an introduction to the last movement, which he had following attacca (without interruption):
Here, the interpretation was subtle, careful, diligent, once more avoiding excesses or extravagance—often close to chamber music in its attitude. The music was fluent, clear: also here rather a classic interpretation than a highly romantic one, even though the composer clearly left his footprint in the prominent horn voices! One could certainly not state that the interpretation was overindulging or excessively emotional—one indication being the somewhat prosaic, abrupt ending.
To me, this is one of the highlights in the genre of romantic symphonies. Overall, I felt that there was not enough romanticism in this interpretation: not enough rubato and agogics (like: little ritenuti ahead of the climax in a phrase), or the occasional overflowing of sentiment. But I could see that with Daniele Gatti’s “free modeling” conducting style, it is probably hard to keep up the coordination through heavy rubato and agogics.
However, if the above sounds overly critical: without doubt, I did enjoy the music thoroughly—all music that evening, for sure! Yes, it was a very popular program. However, the absence of a “listener’s challenge” isn’t deprecative, and it doesn’t imply that the evening was ever boring!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.