United Kingdom Wagner, Berg, Strauss, and Ravel: Frank-Peter Zimmermann (violin), Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 25.8.2012 (MB)
Wagner: Parsifal: Prelude to Act III and ‘Good Friday Music’
Berg: Violin Concerto
Strauss: Suite: Der Rosenkavalier (attrib. Artur Rodziński)
Ravel: La Valse
There is probably no finer Parsifal conductor alive than Daniele Gatti. It was once again a privilege to hear his shaping of music from Wagner’s final drama, even if I find it difficult to reconcile myself with the practice of performing ‘bleeding chunks’ as the ‘Good Friday Music’, and remain a little surprised at conductors with a deep understanding of Wagner’s works performing such snippets out of context in this way. (That is not, I hasten to add, a matter of ‘purism’, simply a feeling that the experience remains insufficient. There is nothing wrong, for instance, with performing the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger as a curtain-raiser. If it works, it works; but if it does not…)
At any rate, there seemed something a little odd about starting with the opening to the third act. Nevertheless, the performance was of such dramatic intensity that one expected to hear Kundry groaning, and felt a little disoriented by a transition of sorts into the ‘Good Friday Music’. The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra’s woodwind solos were especially fine, reminiscent of the Siegfried-Idyll. Gatti’s varied pacing proved unerring, some ,though by no means all of it, unerringly slow; the crucial thing was the unbroken communication of Wagner’s melos.
It was perhaps noteworthy that, as with all the music on this programme, Gatti conducted the Berg Violin Concerto from memory. Gatti has a distinguished track-record in the music of the Second Viennese School; there could certainly be no doubting either his or Frank-Peter Zimmermann’s knowledge of the score. The GMYO woodwind again played with great intensity throughout, though Zimmermann’s account began in somewhat subdued fashion. (Perhaps it was partly a matter of the Royal Albert Hall’s dreadful acoustic.) I wondered whether it were too subdued, despite the apt impression of the ‘angelic’ thereby imparted, but it came to life during the Allegretto section of the first part. Gatti’s understanding of Berg’s twelve-note writing was abundantly clear in his shaping of woodwind lines in particular, pointing the way to the Bach chorale that would be fully sounded in the second part. There was, moreover, a winning Viennese lilt, rubato and all, to be heard to the rhythms. The second part opened with a vehemence previously lacking; there could be no doubting Zimmermann’s virtuosity here either. Moments of Mahlerian stillness were just as striking, the vistas (Carinthian?) that opened up as striking as anything in the music of another composer with whom Gatti has long exhibited a particular affinity. Zimmermann’s working out of serial processes, and more generally Berg’s motivic development, was as impressive as Gatti’s. The Andante from Bach’s A minor Sonata, BWV 1003, made for an apt, wonderfully intimate encore.
If I continue to harbour doubt about performing extracts from Parsifal, feelings about the Rodziński (allegedly his work) suite from Der Rosenkavalier go beyond any conceivable understanding of reasonable doubt. Yes, of course it is always a pleasure with a fine orchestra and conductor to hear this music, but it could surely have been better put together; indeed, one sometimes wonders whether it could have been worse put together. It was all wonderfully performed, making one long to hear Gatti and indeed the orchestra in the work as a whole. The opening horns resounded with such magnificence that I had to check first that we remained in the Royal Albert Hall, and second that there were only four of them. (We had remained there, and there were only four.) Massed strings could barely have sounded more Straussian in the Act I Prelude, but the melying away after Strauss’s initial flourishes was every bit as impressive.
Gatti pointed up echoes of Elektra without overdoing them; this was less a determinedly modernistic Rosenkavalier selection than a Romantic performance with a sense of alternatives. Throughout tone and textures were subtly variegated, even when the allocation of vocal lines to instrumentalists, however splendidly played, proved a little difficult to take. I was left wondering how much, if any, sense the selection would have made to someone unacquainted with the opera as a whole, but that was not the fault of the performance.
For that reason alone, La Valse proved more satisfying. I was struck from the outset at the ‘French’ quality of the sound Gatti drew from the orchestra, not unlike that which one would expect from his own Orchestre National de France. Ravel’s score sounded as if a painterly, Cézanne-like phantasmagoria. It seemed to be taken faster than usual, though not excessively so, and the tempo was certainly not unvaried. The vortex into which the Viennese waltz whirled itself had a mechanistic, Stravinskian quality – Ravel viewed through the prism of The Rite of Spring. There was something finer to come, however, and despite my reservations concerning ‘bleeding chunks’, a rapt account of the Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger, with the orchestra’s strings offering a challenge to any permanent opera or symphony orchestra. Again, one longed to hear Gatti in the complete work.