Saturday, January 23, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Daniele Gatti last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2017, his programme featuring Hindemith and Brahms. For the present webcast, juxtaposing, on the one hand, the free speech and social liberties of 1920s Third Republic France with, on the other, the deprivations and censorship of 1930s Stalinism, he focussed interestingly on pre-Second World War Russian music written either side of the political divide.

Commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Stravinsky’s neoclassical ballet blancApollon musagète, the 1928 European premiere of which was choreographed by George Balanchine, is, orchestrally speaking, a particularly testing study in clarity, textural layering, shading and timbre. Scored for reduced strings (Klemperer’s idea of fifty-four in Berlin in 1929 didn’t sit well with the composer), it leaves no room for players to cut corners. Following the 1947 version, with four basses and six cellos underpinning the ensemble, Gatti gauged a lovingly beautiful performance, purity of attack and sound, “multi-sonorous euphony”, elegance of melodic shaping, and rhythmic élan to the fore. He let the music breath, sing, dance and muse, the perfection of Stravinsky’s invention, what Eric Walter White years ago called its “transcendental serenity”, delineated with all the grace of an architectural watercolour framed in pen-and-ink. Leading, Daishin Kashimoto dispatched his cadenza opening the second scene, ‘Apollo and the Muses’, with fabulous aplomb. A masterclass.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Gatti maintains, lies close to his heart. Grounded further by facets of those coded undercurrents and private tensions yielded in the early-nineties by the composer’s son, Maxim. “The hero being torn apart … The aggression of a soulless negative force … a child’s voice from beneath a soldier’s boot … the last night at home of a man sentenced to the gulag … not happiness … not victory”. Spread before us in this account was a bleak wasteland, the odd flickering light, relentlessness. By the closing peroration the elation of Beethovenian D-major brotherhood distorted into something obscenely otherwise, nailed percussively into the whips-and-shackles will of master over man, screaming quaver As, 252 of them, confronting windowless Lubyanka repression.

So why the lack of conviction? Pacing and tempo management for one. Getting his message across, Gatti took the long road home – fifty-two minutes. Not the slowest performance (Celibidache needed five more), but exceptional when you consider the Soviet old guard. Mravinsky (who premiered the work in Leningrad in 1937), along with Kondrashin, was happy at ten minutes or so less. Svetlanov, Barshai, Rostropovich, Rozhdestvensky, Kitayenko and Temirkanov hovered between forty-five and forty-eight. So, too, from personal encounter, did Maxim during his early days, expanding his view only with his later recordings, edging towards the mid-fifties. Durations, of course, convey only so much, they don’t reveal the full extent and subtlety, the gear changes, of what goes on within a text. The major unsettling factor in Gatti’s approach was his decision to angle the slower paragraphs so deliberately (influencing the course of both opening and third movements) that in places motion near ceased. Another was his handling of the Finale’s metronome shifts up to figure 112, not so much investing each with its own identity as creating a lurchingly breathless accelerando akin to a train out of control.

One isn’t accustomed to hesitant entries, lapses of artistry, or issues of string intonation from the Philharmoniker. But the players were clearly uneasy with the tumult of the Finale, sacrificing discipline in passages that ought to have been tighter (or more keenly rehearsed): a close run thing. Procrastination burdened woodwind fluidity, likewise the burlesque solos of the Scherzo, even as experienced a player as Emmanuel Pahud losing tone and quality, visible concentration notwithstanding. For some of the younger, unfamiliar faces in the orchestra (recruits from the Karajan Academy?) it must have been a baptism by fire.