United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 64 – Rihm, Bruckner: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.9.2017. (CC)
Rihm – In-Schrift
Bruckner – Symphony No.9
Wolfgang Rihm’s 1995 composition In-Schrift is a powerful work, almost Stravinskian in the first part. As the conductor Daniele Gatti explained in a brief radio interview, Rihm exploits the tensions between the families of instruments. A central quasi-chorale offers some respite, the lower strings instructed to play senza vibrato, a moment that starts the music’s trajectory towards a remarkable ‘break’ for high bongos and woodblocks. This is not In–Schrift’s first Proms performance: Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker introduced it in the 1998 season.
In terms of orchestra layout, horns and harps and woodwinds sit where the violins would normally be; the instrumentation includes a pair of contrabass trombones and ‘contrabass tuba’; perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a contrabassoon and bass clarinet there as well. The brass section (which also includes four horns, three trumpets and four trombones) is balanced by three flutes, two clarinets in A as well as seven cellos and seven double-basses.
Written for a performance in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the work has a dual-meaning title: ‘Inschrift’ (Inscription) and ‘In Schrift’ (Made in script). The echoes of Stravinsky Gatti mentioned in the radio interview are perhaps understandable as an homage as that composer (along with Monteverdi and Gabrieli) had also written for St Mark’s. Gestural, almost pointillist at times, the piece begins with an arresting F sharp on no less than five tubular bells. The sheer rhythmic precision of Gatti’s performance, its sure confidence, was remarkable, the exactitude of the opening perhaps holding implicit the mechanistic outpouring of the remarkable long rhythmic section for bongos and woodblocks. Drama is key to this work; bass drum thwacks initiate lower strings after that percussion break as if narrating a new chapter of a story.
Perhaps the moment of performance drama here in Gatti’s baton going flying (rescued by the first flautist but actually untouched for the remainder of the performance) was itself an unscripted layer on Rihm’s text (Un-Schrift?!). The performance was stunning in its concentration. There were a suspicious number of empty seats for the first half, especially given the orchestra’s reputation; some even remained empty for the second half, an even bigger surprise.
Daniele Gatti actually performed Bruckner’s Ninth previously at the Proms in 1999 with the Royal Philharmonic. And, of course, the Concertgebouw has a long and honourable tradition in Bruckner symponies. Just at the Royal Albert Hall, there have been performances by Chailly (First, 1992 and Third, 1988 – I was present at the latter, a fine performance) and Haitink (two Fifths an Eighth and a Ninth). Here, Gatti added a Ninth of his own to the Concertgebouw tally, a reading leaner than most.
Antiphonal violins added to the radiance of the contrapuntal writing. Technically, this was some of the finest Bruckner around: the unison horn slurs in that mid-low register were faultless. Structurally, Gatti read the first movement well, allowing for ebb and flow while retaining an underlying muscularity. There was the underlying feeling that this was good but not great Bruckner, however. Whether Gatti’s script was partially deconstuctionist (although not as X-ray in intent as Sinopoli) or just that he wanted a dollop of sunlight filtering through in his sonic cathedral, the effect was a string of highly interesting moments. Emaciated, otherworldly strings offered an intriguingly eerie moment.
Gatti opted to leave no gap between movements, having to make a silencing gesture to the audience at the opening of the third. The feeling that the energy could be cranked up just a touch for the Scherzo was possibly a reflection of a tempo that itself sounded just under. Dissonances offered a heavy-footed dance instead of grinding their way into our consciousness uncomfortably. The superb Trio was phenomenally done, however, and one should acknowledge the brilliant oboe of Alexei Ogrintchouk.
Again, it was moments in the Adagio rather than the movement’s overall trajectory that stood out. Ululating double-basses, a fine quartet of Wagner tubas, a lovely string depth that led to moments of near-radiance and a palpable sense of post-climax desolation were all notable; yet again this ultimately failed fully to engage into the greatness the work offers the interpreter. The ending seemed to come too soon and speak of matters too small.
In terms of Bruckner Ninths at the Proms, while Haitink has offered a quaternity of heavenly farewells (1967, 1969, 1983, 2012), many will rightly hold Günter Wand’s final 2001 Prom in highest regard. Gatti’s offering, however supremely executed, sadly fails to place him in the highest rank of Brucknerians.
Incidentally, this is actually the second (who knows, there may be more?) coupling of Rihm and Bruckner in London in 2017, as the former’s Second Piano Concerto was coupled with the latter’s Seventh Symphony by the BBCSO under Lothar Koenigs with pianist Nicolas Hodges at the Barbican in February. It turns out that the two composers do go rather well together.
It will be interesting to hear Gatti’s Mahler Fourth (Prom 65); maybe there will be a deeper sense of resonance on display.