Daniele Gatti / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Rihm / Bruckner
KKL Lucerne, 2017-09-04
The last week of this year’s Lucerne Festival in the White Hall of the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL) gave me the pleasure of two personal “firsts” (other than music that I hadn’t heard in concert, or even at all): one of Europe’s top orchestras and its chief conductor. This time, it was the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (see also Wikipedia for additional information) under the baton of Daniele Gatti (*1961, the orchestra’s chief conductor since 2016, see again Wikipedia for more information).
Interestingly, my oldest CD recording (recorded 1965) of the second part of this concert’s program, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, is with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the direction of Bernard Haitink (*1929), who also directed that same symphony in the Tonhalle in Zurich, on 2017-12-07. So, in this concert I was about to hear the “other half” of that recording—over 50 years later.
Ideally, of course, orchestras should be heard and judged in their home environment, as that’s what they are used to (even if they are touring a lot), particularly in terms of acoustics, etc.—and I certainly hope that some day I’ll make it to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. However, the acoustics in the KKL are really excellent and should still allow any orchestra to give their best.
My seat was on the right side parquet gallery, at the depth of row 20—excellent seats with perfect, unobstructed view (and the seats are still oriented towards the podium). It’s on the side, but at about 3/4 depth, there was no bias, as one might normally expect from seats on the side of the hall.
Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) composed his orchestral work “IN-SCHRIFT” in 1995. The title has a double meaning of sorts and is not easily translatable. “In-Schrift” means “in-Writing”—”Inschrift” means “Inscription”. Rihm’s capitalization of the title adds one level of abstraction. But the basic thought was that of an inscription, which is realized “in writing“—here obviously writing in musical notation.
As such, this title refers to a concept that remains abstract, hard, if not impossible to relate to the music. In my opinion it is barely relevant to the listener. For example, one might interpret the (scarcely placed) tolls on the bells as strokes of a stone mason. However, this does not add to the understanding of the music—it may rather distract from it. And it does not enrich the listening experience or make the music more enjoyable.
Indeed, Rihm’s idea wasn’t that of “program music”. The title as such was merely a trigger for a compositional process that Rihm describes as “vegetative”. The program notes include a quote by the composer (here in translation): “My work process is often vegetative. This gives me the opportunity to follow my material in places where it grows by itself.”
A first “look”
The result of Rihm’s organic process of creation is music that is timeless in the best sense of the word. It is not bound to the syntax, the formalism of any given style (e.g.: minimal Music, serial music, etc.). Also in the listening experience, it is neither completely atonal (which some listeners might see as revolting), not does it fall into the other extreme of trying to please everybody, hence it is not overly pleasant, such as to turn into an “earworm”. At the same time, “IN-SCHRIFT” isn’t music written for an exclusive circle of specialists.
Actually, one could view the Tone F♯ as being inscribed into this composition—and then, the title might indeed make sense! That tone starts the work in the form of the simultaneous stroke of five (tube) bells in unison. That stroke returns at irregular intervals, throughout the composition. In-between, the resonance of the bells is prolonged, in that other instruments pick up the tone, giving it a life on its own. Sometimes, it hides among other voices (but there are few moments where one can’t find it at all), then again it returns prominently.
For Rihm’s “IN-SCHRIFT”, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra gathered in the middle part of the podium. The composition does away with all violins and violas, so the sound is darker, maybe more mysterious. In compensation for the missing strings, some woodwinds were sitting at the front edge—most prominently, the flutes on the left and the contrabassoon on the right. In addition, there were six percussionists (5 players with bells, drums and idiophones such as wood blocks, one set of timpani).
The Role of the Conductor
Daniele Gatti, born 1961 in Milan, started studying piano, violin, composition, and conducting. 1988 he debuted at the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), 1992 he became Music Director of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia for five years. during that time, he also launched his international career, which took him to the Royal Opera House in London (1994 – 1997), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1996 – 2009), then to the Teatro Comunale di Bologna (1997 – 2007), the Zurich Opera (2009 – 2012), as well as the Orchestre National de France (2008 – 2012) and numerous other places. He focused both on opera, as well as symphonic music (the latter mostly as guest conductor). About a year ago, he became Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam.
Usually, the bulk of a conductor’s job occurs during rehearsals. In a performance, apart from (obviously) setting the pace, the conductor mostly does “fine tuning”—mostly dynamics, motivating the musicians in the orchestra. Here, however, the conductor’s role is absolutely crucial also—and particularly—in the concert performance. Gatti’s clear and precise conducting gestures were instrumental in coordinating the orchestra, keeping it aligned throughout the 19 minutes of “IN-SCHRIFT”. On the other hand, in this music, dynamics and acoustic balance are aspects that the conductor largely settles in the rehearsals.
Gatti’s “coordinative power” was very apparent in this music. It started with the first toll of the bells: even though the five percussionists with their tube bells stood in a line, almost across the entire width of the podium, that first F♯ stroke was perfectly, almost unbelievably synchronous, as if it were one single bell that sounded. And this persisted for all the other F♯ strokes, throughout the piece. Actually, for all practical purposes (i.e., as far as a listener can tell), the coordination in the entire orchestra was virtually perfect, throughout the piece, and across all tempo changes, leaving very little, if anything to wish for!
F♯ strokes from the bells return sporadically, irregularly, throughout the piece. They are some sort of signal, or pivotal points, always “nailing”, refreshing the F♯ tone. Other instruments then pick up that tone, as it fades away from the bells. Instruments such as the flutes prolong the tone, giving it its own life, making it boil using flutter tonguing, then passing it on to other instruments, such as the harps, cellos and double basses, the woodwinds. Sometimes it almost disappears into nothing—but then, invariably, a new stroke from the bells revives it.
A second key component in “IN-SCHRIFT” is chorale-like, in trombones and the tuba, later also moving into the (low) strings. It’s more than motifs—yet not a melody that one would memorize or recognize as such (certainly not when hearing the music for the first time). That “chorale” later grows into almost late-romantic brass sonority.
Dissonances / Tonality, and Rhythm?
There are phases of reflection, of almost-silence—and from this emerges polyphony, like memories of baroque textures. Inevitably, there are also loud dissonances, evolving into incisive contractions. I also observed (upwards and downwards) leading tone elements: overall, I saw this as tonal music—not using conventional (e.g., minor or major) tonalities, of course, but rather in the sense of the music remaining centered around that central F♯.
The percussion adds a strong structuring element to the music. However, here, one rarely finds a regular, persistent rhythm. Unless, of course, if one defines the slowly growing, long, synchronous roll from the five drums as rhythm.
Wolfgang Rihm designed this music for the acoustics of the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. That’s also where the work premiered. Here, the music could ideally spread out in the White Hall of the KKL (which was set up for resonating acoustics that night, with the echo chambers wide open). Rihm’s work, i.e., the musicians, filled the venue, which became the resonance body for the orchestra as a whole.
One little question / quibble arose towards the end: I had the subtle impression that the F♯ wasn’t exactly the same across the orchestra. It felt (a tad) as if the intonation was “tilted” across the orchestra (e.g., low strings vs. transverse flute). But I could not “nail this down”, as it all passed quickly. I asked myself whether this had to do with the variations in intonation on the flute, somewhat depending on the volume. Of course, it could have been natural de-tuning of the instruments (though, the piece was only 19 minutes). I thought that it might even be possible that this was an intended feature (I do not have a score). In any case, it was a mere “scent”, more than any real irritation. Overall, I definitely found this an excellent, even astounding performance.
Bruckner: Symphony No.9 in D minor, WAB 109
Sadly, Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) was not able to finish the last movement of his Symphony No.9 in D minor, WAB 109. Three movements are complete (I’m sure Bruckner would have continued revising his scores), but the last movement only exists as manuscript pages, fragments. Some of these were even lost, probably in private collections all over the planet. Some people suggested using the “Te Deum” (WAB 45) as alternative final movement. However, a piece in C major is hardly acceptable as end to a symphony in D minor. I have written a little more about this symphony in my posting on a concert in Zurich’s Tonhalle on 2016-12-07, with Bernard Haitink. Here, I’m just listing the movements:
- Feierlich, misterioso [solemn, mysterious]
- (Scherzo:) Bewegt, lebhaft — Trio: Schnell [busy, vivid] — Scherzo da capo
- Adagio: Langsam, feierlich [slow, solemn]
- Finale (incomplete, fragments only)
Bruckner wanted to dedicate this symphony to “dem Lieben Gott“—to God. So everything seems to aim at the non-existent last movement that supposedly would bring the ultimate exaltation, apotheosis, heaven—who knows? Overall, the partial symphony does leave a big hole, open expectations. As as music, it therefore cannot be entirely satisfactory, fulfilling.
Only after the intermission, the audience was facing the full, impressive string section of the orchestra. The strings appeared in antiphonal setting, i.e., the two violin sections facing each other at the front of the podium. The cellos were sitting on the left, behind the first violins, the double basses in the rear left, behind the cellos. Gatti was conducting without score—and again with his precise and clear gestures. At all times, he appeared to be in full control over the entire, large orchestral apparatus.
Technically, the orchestra was absolutely flawless. They may not have the silky, shining string sound of other, prominent orchestras, but they certainly performed with excellent, diligently adjusted dynamic balance between the brass, woodwind and string sections.
Bruckner’s instrumentation is far from the complexity and the refinement of other, fellow composers of the late-romantic era. Both the clarity of Bruckner’s instrumentation, as well as of course the contributions by the orchestra, and the excellent acoustics, this all helped, was instrumental in keeping the sound transparent, avoiding thickliness, excess complexity or density.
In line with the clarity of the sound, my perception of the interpretation was that of clear contours. There certainly wasn’t an excess of emotion, expression—what people often take as romanticism.
I. Feierlich, misterioso
With Bruckner’s music, there is always a strong, religious component. Nt in concrete “imagery”, however, but more as a feeling of an overwhelming, greater entity, in front of which the composer stood in awe. The music seemed to emerge, erupt from his religious mind with primordial force. The result is music with huge dimensions, characterized by large, successive build-up arches / waves.
In this performance in particular, I didn’t see this as “religious” music (despite the dedication!) in terms of “local expression”: I would not characterize it as solemn or trying to create a religious atmosphere. Rather, one could perhaps see Bruckner’s religious dignity in his almost endless sequence of build-ups, the relentless sequence of climaxes, each followed by the next wave, and the almost gigantic overall scale of the movement. It’s as if the composer was constantly striving to attain redemption, adding wave after wave, in endless patience with himself?
The first two movements don’t feature extended cantilenas: melodies are rather short, fragmentary. Longer melody lines typically result from stretching to larger note values. Even such extended melody lines retain the conciseness of a motif / melody fragment.
Despite the length of the movement (almost half an hour), Daniele Gatti managed to keep up the tension throughout the piece. General rests never disrupted the tension. At the same time, in this interpretation, these rests never did not appear as sudden abysses, “local catastrophes”, nor did they appear pivotal in any particular way. Overall, Gatti seemed not to seek excessive expression in the moment. This must have helped keeping an eye on the large-scale structure.
II. Scherzo. Bewegt, lebhaft — Trio. Schnell — Scherzo da capo
From its character and the “A – Trio – A” structure, the second movement is a Scherzo with the typical, embedded Trio. Indeed, at the end of the Trio, Bruckner writes “Scherzo da Capo“. However, the movement title simply is “Bewegt, lebhaft“. As movement name, Bruckner probably deemed “Scherzo” inappropriate for a work that he wanted to dedicate to God, and which therefore is way too earnest, serious for such a title and possible connotations.
The key impressions from this movement came from the strong, clear dynamic contrasts, and from the excellent pizzicati in the Scherzo. I was equally impressed with the clarity of the spiccati in the Trio: a strongly motoric piece. That Trio in itself is interspersed with contrasting segments, featuring a mix of elegiac, somewhat melancholic melody combined with vivid motifs from the woodwinds, like birds singing.
III. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich
The slow movement is almost as long as the first one. Here, at last, we heard longer melody lines! Though, Bruckner declines the possibility of a proper, harmonic / tonal ending in these melodies. He probably reserved this for the final movement.
In this concert, I did not perceive this movement as religious. However, the full sonority of the four horns and the four Wagner tubas certainly made it sound solemn, gave the feeling of greatness. Needless to say that also this movement features Bruckner’s characteristic build-ups, these endless crescendi to a climax, even up to fff, followed by the next wave. It’s as if the composer attempted to ascent to the paradise, heavenly heights, but inevitably fell back to earth, where he started the next ascent. Despite its size, the movement still is “just” a (big) preparation for the (non-existent) Finale—and so, it has an ethereal, almost spiritual ending.
An Incomplete Ending
Only the final part would (presumably / possibly) have brought fulfillment. It’s a pity that the composer was no longer in a position to finish that. Inevitably, the performance ended with the feeling that something in Bruckner’s music is amiss. And this opens the question whether one should try finding a substitute ending—something other than the Te Deum, obviously?
Undeniably, Daniele Gatti played a substantial, very central role in the success, in both parts of the concert. It was nice to see, however, how he modestly took himself back, accepting the long applause from between the musicians at the first desks, showing himself as a part of the team. This way, he honored the achievement of the orchestra. At the same time, he indicated that everybody on the podium jointly served the music of the two composers.
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.