Friday, September 24, 2021

Grand Palace Hall, Ion Câmpineanu 28, Bucharest, Romania

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

What do you programme Mahler Four with? Jascha Horenstein opted famously for Johann Strauss to follow – a juxtaposition brought vividly home to me at a London concert with Heather Harper in October 1970. “Like a Viennese waltz in Vienna” Mahler wrote of the first violin entry on the initial page of Mengelberg’s score … Daniele Gatti, who’s recorded the work twice (with the RPO and Royal Concertgebouw), opted to open with Schubert in sunny mood, his D-major Third Symphony jotted down during the tail-end weeks of the Congress of Vienna, late spring of 1815, aged eighteen. All repeats, a touch emphatic in places; an elegantly placed Allegretto second movement (bridging Lied and entr’acte, not too fast); a deliberated Menuetto, taking its tempo from the rustic Trio; a pleasantly urbane Finale, less mountain-stream in spirit than woodland brook. Time for everyone to settle, to get into a conversational groove, to resolve minor intonation nerves. Idiosyncrasies kept to a minimum, the slight holding back of the first-movement’s second subject persuasively beguiling. Reduced string forces, antiphonal violins and violas. To what extent Brahms’s 1884 edition, still in many libraries, rather than Bärenreiter’s 1967 Urtext influenced the decision-making crossed my mind once or twice: right at the start the fade-out of the paused unison modelled an evidently ‘old world’ stance (hairpin) contrasting Bärenreiter’s ‘new generation’ attack (accent).

Gatti doesn’t go in for dramatics or choreography. Fundamentally he favours a lean approach, small gestures for much of the time, sometimes just the faintest of shudders at the end of his baton, an expressive left hand to occasionally emphasise the phrasing or bring out an (unexpected) inner or lower part. The audience gets to see a relatively static figure. Contrasting the orchestra, faced with a myriad of facial gestures, from eyes closed to sudden animation to half-smiles to curling snarls and flared nostrils. The look is everything, and his Santa Cecilia players spent much of this concert doing nothing but watch him, their young leader, Andrea Obiso, along with his fellow section principals, committed to the hilt. It made for Mahler playing of particular clarity, for much of the time a chamber-like outing, finely crafted and balanced ensembles interleaved with marbled tuttis, intimacy and ache with angst and temper, old-world nostalgia and arching renaissance beauty, time without end, weaving undefinable spells.

“Faced by his death-mask, and noting the aggressive nose, the haughty set of the head, one would be tempted to say: here lies a man of action – some general, some political fanatic. In a sense one would be right, for this fiery, compulsive little Austrian, with his masochistic yearning for Nirvana, was a sworn enemy of the easy, and avoided the primrose path with a determination that is impressive.” So maintained Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor in their Record Guide published in 1951. Their recommended Fourth was Bruno Walter’s 1945 Carnegie Hall account with Dési von Halban, with the proviso that given Halban’s “heavy” timbre and “clumsy” phrasing (I find her rushed), Elisabeth Schumann (age notwithstanding) would have been the better choice of soloist. Mahler divides. Gatti’s Mahler divides. But then what conductor, sooner or later, has not upset one or other of the many Mahler factions we have today – cabals and social-media groups often vitriolically opinionated and camp-centric? Mahler’s music, how he notated his ideas, invites an excess of interpretations. His complex, subtly infused instructions, largely in the vernacular, can both help and hinder, one man’s gauging being another’s anathema. He jotted down a few metronome marks in a proof copy of the Fourth, but, mistrusting their usefulness or reliability, removed them before publication. So we end up in a minefield. You either survive/believe/like what you hear or you don’t.

By such token I warmed to Gatti’s performance. I liked the canvas, the contrasts, the blending of colours, the cauldrons and chalices, the emotional tensions, the refinements of timing, the climaxes, the third movement’s pathos and cadence. The Swiss soprano Rachel Harnisch brought a furrowed theatre, maturity, life experience and long-nurtured German understanding to the Wunderhorn Finale, finding space and air to breathe, her closing lines a deliriously beautiful farewell from the heart. The woodwind responded aromatically, the harp spoke with sonorous freedom, its E-major glow and final four ground notes following the cor anglais glimpsing magical spheres. “We revel in heavenly pleasures, leaving all that is earthly behind us …” Come fifty-eight minutes (Walter took fifty), Gatti looked like he’d been on a rich journey seeking the grail. It was good to share it with him.