A Great Brahms Performance from Daniele Gatti and the Berliner Philharmoniker

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hindemith and Brahms: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 29.9.2017. (MB)

Hindemith – Symphony: ‘Mathis der Maler’

Brahms – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73

Two works strongly associated with the greatest Berlin Philharmonic conductor of all: Wilhelm Furtwängler. The Mathis der Maler Symphony owes its very existence to Furtwängler’s request for a work from Hindemith, its material originating in the opera on which the composer was working at the time. The premiere, on 12 March 1934, was, of course, an event of great historical as well as artistic importance; neither the conductor’s nor the composer’s relations with the Third Reich authorities would ever be the same again (ironically, given its tonal and, as many remarked, frankly ‘German’ qualities). The work, then, has a long association with the orchestra; fine recordings exist from both Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. Today it was Daniele Gatti’s turn to lead an estimable performance (conducted from memory, for those interested in such matters).

The Symphony’s opening sounded very much like Busoni: not just the score, but its performance too: yet another occasion when I found myself wishing ‘if only these musicians would also play…’. Much inter-war music does at times, although that, alas, never seems to result in more performances of Busoni. But process, Hindemithian process, was immediately apparent, shaping the material and its dynamism, rendering any ‘similarities’, whether to Busoni or anyone else, of interest, yet hardly deterministic. I must admit to finding the glockenspiel’s appearance in this first movement, its designation as an ‘Engelkonzert’ notwithstanding, a bit odd, but that is doubtless my failing. Can honest, superior ‘craft’ be ‘art’? Yes, of course, and that seemed both to be proved in performance, but also to be dramatised therein – as in the opera too. It is not all counterpoint, of course, but it inevitably registered strongly, the Bach of Neue Sachlichkeit especially apparent. So too did what fun that can be. And no, there is no sarcasm in that claim. Res severa verum gaudium.

The second movement, and indeed the third, shared many of the virtues of the first, not least the luxurious – never remotely narcissistic – tone of the Berlin Philharmonic, especially at climaxes, and Gatti’s guiding, unobtrusive musicianship. The general moods of the movements were naturally very different. Woodwind solos took, I think, more of a leading role in the ‘Grablegung’, which made sense. And the brass sounded, in context, unmistakeably of a Lutheran tradition. The richness and vehemence of the finale’s opening strings ‘spoke’ wonderfully, as if the language of an opera related to, yet distinct from, Mathis der Maler itself. It sounded like a finale too: often easier said than done.

The Hindemith was premiered with C.P.E. Bach’s A minor Cello Concerto (soloist Paul Grümmer) and Brahms’s Third Symphony. Here we heard Brahms’s Second. No one in his or her right mind would fail to consider Furtwängler one of the very greatest Brahms conductors. It is difficult to imagine why (s)he would not consider him the greatest of all. There is no good reason to draw straightforward comparisons here; Gatti’s Brahms has little in common with Furtwängler’s – and why should it? What I can say is that I found it an outstanding performance, of greater interest than any I know from this orchestra – I can hardly speak of those I do not know! – since Eugen Jochum. I say ‘greater interest’ because it genuinely had something new, at least to me, to say, without that novelty appearing to be for its own sake, or indeed for the sake of anything other than ‘the music itself’, whatever that might be.

‘Motivic clarity’, if that is not too odd a term, struck me at the opening of the first movement. Themes sounded almost as if they were Wagnerian motifs: with great potential for malleability, (just, perhaps not entirely incidentally, as Wagner speaks of his own Ring motifs), yet distinct and with character, introducing us to the drama ahead. One might, I suppose, say the same about Beethoven, common inspiration lying therein; yet for some reason, perhaps unusually, it was Wagner who came to mind. There was an undeniable elegiac quality (good!), yet it was one amongst many and never uncontested, the ‘character’ of the movement, and indeed of the symphony as a whole, ever transforming, according to the requirements of the symphonic drama. Earlier, undeniable influences, not least Mendelssohn and Schumann, might be heard, without that meaning the music could be reduced to them. A symphony does not proceed according to a recipe; nor, thank goodness, does a performance, at least not a good one. And how gorgeous – again, non-narcissistically – the opening of the second subject sounded from this orchestra (which has been playing it regularly since 1887, most recently with Simon Rattle last November). It had heft, too, when required, but there was nothing ‘heavy’ to the performance, having been thoroughly thought through, without pedantry. There was often a Klemperer-like sturdiness – quite different from Furtwängler, in some respects even antithetical to him – to this movement; yet, like Klemperer himself, Gatti nevertheless had the music flow. The development, for instance, was a battle royal, possessed of a tragic note clearly, perhaps even surprisingly, foretelling the Fourth Symphony. And the weight of utterance – which, I should stress again, does not speak of ‘heaviness’ – truly made this a worthy successor to the more overt titanism of the First.

The opening cello theme of the second movement was clearly loved – and why not, especially with the Berlin Philharmonic? It emerged with a nobility I am tempted to call Elgarian. Woodwind counterpoint seemed to peer forward into the more obvious modernism of Schoenberg and Berg. (It is doubtless no coincidence what a fine conductor of their music Gatti is.) The passion was as great as anything in their music too. The Classical dialectic between major and minor was given new – and old – meaning: how very Brahmsian! Clouds lifted, it seemed, for the third movement, its character different, yet clearly following on from what we had already heard. It danced, Brahms’s metrical games clearly relished. Haydn would surely have smiled.

As for the finale and the alleged ‘finale problem’ after Beethoven: ‘problem, what problem?’ Not that triumph was not hard won, of course not, for this was anything but merely genial. Rather, Brahms’s material, method, and yes, character were put to good work here in a thrilling, defiant, and ultimately jubilant reading – which seemed to me just as successful as, say, the brilliant live LSO recording with Karl Böhm. Gatti was more daring, however, in his extremes, here perhaps owing more to, or at least having more in common with, Furtwängler than with Klemperer (or Böhm). He could be, because the fundamentals – in every sense – were sound. Brahms was not being pulled around; rather, dialectical method inherent and implicit in the score was released to do what it could, even should. I am not sure that Adorno would necessarily have ‘liked’ this; indeed, he might have had reservations similar to those he voiced concerning Furtwängler’s Brahms. I suspect, though, that, just as he appreciated Furtwängler’s Brahms, he would have done so Gatti’s. Perhaps that semi-notorious Brahms-sceptic, Pierre Boulez, might have done too. (Yes, he conducted some, but not very much, and soon gave up.) The greatest revelation came, quite fittingly, at the end: well prepared, and thus with all the necessary illusion of something coming naturally. The horizontal and vertical seemed to become one: more Schoenbergian – and behind Schoenberg, there will often come a little Brahms and Wagner – than any performance I can recall hearing. It made sense, both in itself, and of what had come before. This, I think, was a great Brahms performance, no qualification required.

Mark Berry

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