A Storied Amsterdam Ensemble Falters Slightly in New Amsterdam

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Bruckner, Bruch, Mahler: Janine Jansen (violin), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York City. 17-18.1.2018. (BH)

Daniele Gatti (c) Silvia Lelli

17 January

Wagner – Prelude to Act III and Good Friday Spell from Parsifal

Bruckner – Symphony No.9 in D Minor

18 January

Bruch – Violin Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op.26

Mahler – Symphony No. 1 in D Major

After the transcendent final bars of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, a friend later confided, ‘I have never liked Bruckner—until tonight.’ But then, Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra were undeniably persuasive in the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall.

If Bruckner is like architecture, Gatti’s clear concept revealed everything from sturdy timbers to delicate inner pipelines. Tiny echoes offered subtle contrast. Silences were meticulously observed, allowing mammoth climaxes to resound and decay with explosive impact.

After the first movement, Gatti did something quite unusual: He began the second attacca, with only the slightest pause, which not only made sense, but kept the audience from relaxing into a barrage of coughs. (Given the influenza epidemic at the moment, the hall was remarkably quiet.) The ensemble’s pizzicatos jumped out with tiny pings, and the timpani-laden, war-like barrages had weight without being ponderous.

In the final movement, Gatti milked the massive, dissonant chord that materializes near the end for every bit of drama—again followed by a silence that paradoxically, spoke even louder. Throughout, Gatti’s careful phrasing made the flow speak beautifully, eloquently, without any of the ‘bombast’ that appears in comments from those who disdain the composer.

The evening began with a brief fragment from Parsifal, done with an ineffable glow that made one long for this splendid orchestra to play a concert version of the entire opera. Ideally balanced textures seemed to float up from deep, cavernous spaces, and as in the Bruckner, the horns stole much of the attention.

On the second night, Janine Jansen tackled the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 with unswerving authority and immaculate intonation. Jansen is at Carnegie for a series of concerts titled Perspectives; in December she appeared in two chamber evenings including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, followed by an afternoon with Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Dover Quartet (available to view free for a month on medici.tv), and in March she returns with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra for Michel van der Aa’s Violin Concerto. Though the Bruch seemed a pleasant-but-not-vital showcase for Jansen’s considerable talents, her unfailingly sweet tone won the day. Her imaginative encore, involving a handful of members of the orchestra, was ‘Nana’ from Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, a plaintive coda to the Bruch fireworks.

As a friend said after the Mahler First Symphony, ‘Even the Concertgebouw on an off night is better than most orchestras.’ While the overall thrust and phrasing were there, as well as some impressively soft dynamic levels, some of the execution suffered; the brass were having an especially rough evening. (I couldn’t help but wonder when the ensemble arrived in town, and the effects of jet lag, which must plague many traveling groups. Even if they arrived two or three days in advance, in effect, they began the Mahler at around 3:00 in the morning, Amsterdam time.)

But there were pleasures, nevertheless. The woodwind bird calls in the first movement had a spontaneous quality, as if one were startled by their wondrous timbres on a casual walk through the woods. Kudos to the percussionist masterminding the cymbals, demonstrating the modulations that instrument can achieve in the right hands. And also on the plus side, Gatti’s operatic instincts served him well; Mahler’s first symphonic utterance had plenty of thrills. (Fans should seek out Gatti’s reading of the Fifth Symphony on the DVD box set, released by the Concertgebouw in 2013.)

As a postscript, one friend remarked on the number of women in the orchestra. A quick browse through the printed program showed a rough estimate of 25% women on the roster; most of the expert second violin section appeared to be female. This is heartening, worth noticing, and worth amplifying—and the group often sounds sensational, not in spite of them, but because of them.

Bruce Hodges

Previously reviewed by Rick Perdian (click here).

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