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The Emperor and the Mystic

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/17/2018 -  & January 5, 7, 2018 (Amsterdam)
Richard Wagner: From Parsifal: Act III Prelude & Good Friday Spell
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (Chief Conductor)

D. Gatti (© Silvia Lelli)

“A single cymbal clash by Bruckner is worth all four Brahms symphonies, with the serenades thrown in.”
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)

First, we must assume that the Bruckner Ninth Symphony opening movement will not be used for the Winter Olympics Figure-Skating Competition background next month. Yes, both the music and the athletics are most noble enterprises. But somehow...well, they might not coalesce.

Second, one must ask seriously whether other orchestras might well put a “Tanya Harding” on the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. After last night’s concert, the first of two, it could be said that this is the greatest orchestra in Europe, if not the world. The word “greatest” doesn’t mean much, since every first-rate orchestra has its own personality. But after hearing Daniele Gatti, their new Chief Conductor, one wonders whether any other group can compete.

The past year, we have heard great orchestras doing Bruckner, by placing the tympanist in the center on a little pedestal, so his banging gets extra attention. Or having the entire brass choir stand up for their religious fanfares. All of this has a dramatic effect on the audience, which waits impatiently for their starring moments.

None of this took place with the great Amsterdam group. They needed no cynosures, since every member of this group is part of the whole. Mr. Gatti might have had individuals stand up for the final applause, but this was irrelevant. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is an organism all its own. Not a mechanical or ant-like collective, but a group of individuals who make up one giant tapestry.

Milan-born Daniele Gatti is not only the most stirring visual conductor, a regal presence with a most dynamic baton and restrained sweeping gestures. He is also known here for his Parsifal at the Met. I hadn’t seen it, but friends have praised his performance. Whatever the vocal sections of this cryptic mystical story, the Act III Prelude was the signal of the puzzles to come, and conductors might wonder how these amorphous cellos and triumphant brass can hold steady. It was seemingly no chore for Mr. Gatti. He led the ensemble with a single faultless line, a rising to the climax with the most subtle ascension.

Which meant that the Good Friday Spell, taken without a break, was more familiar and even more glorious. When the brass sung their chorale, nobody needed a standup performance. They were simply the golden threads in Wagner’s medieval landscape.

Wagner was the Teutonic ruler of the later 19th Century, with his own aerie-topped castle. But Bruckner’s willing vassalage–or more appropriately, as spiritual Friar of the court–was hardly appropriate. Wagner was always the dramatist, Bruckner’s music was that of the giant organ in the mythical cathedral. Yet both, as Mr. Gatti showed last night, were peers.

Some critics differentiate Bruckner-conductor tempos. Yet in Mr. Gatti’s case, this was almost irrelevant. Yes, he took all three movements slowly. Not in a lugubrious slowness, but the careful tempo of an architect, gradually building upon a previous blueprint. Those horn calls were Wagner-inspired, but Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony calls weren’t to summon heroes from the mountains. Rather, they became the structure for a series of assemblages, one on top of the other (granted, with a few musical staircases) until the last soaring peak.

We expect those climaxes from Bruckner, yet when Mr. Gatti and his Amsterdam forces reached the apex, it was an inevitability, not a “grand finale.”

The scherzo was hardly a joke. These were sinister pizzicatos, and these were the drums of hell as if to show that nothing was superfluous from the composer. The Trio was not for dancing, was not simply a contrast. Mr. Gatti had taken a break, but the hellish strains were let loose again, even louder, more ferocious than the first setting.

Of course the Ninth Symphony was not written for three movements. (Bruckner had several avatars, but early Haydn wasn’t one of them.) He was ill, he was nearing a meeting with his Creator (in Whom, unlike Wagner, he believed fervently and literally). So perhaps a suggested work from his Te Deum might have finished the work. In the meantime, we have this long drawn-out credo. And here was a little disappointment. Not because the faultless horns made several bloopers, not because the orchestra was sagging under the weight, But possibly because Mr. Gatti and his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra were so enamored of the sounds and the instrumental interludes that the great climaxes didn’t rise up from the depths, but were part of the landscape. Like a 19th Century German painting, the musicians were gazing upon the landscape rather than participating.

No problem. This was music which made its own statements, and overlaying a desire for “more drums, more trumpets” would selfish. Tonight is more of the orchestra, more Gatti, which my ConcertoNet colleague will explore. Whether he relishes it the same way or not, he will have an equal adventure with this oh so rich ensemble.

Harry Rolnick



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