United States Wagner, Bruckner, Bruch, Mahler: Janine Jansen (violin), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York,17-18.1.2018. (RP)
17 January 2018
Wagner – Prelude to Act III and ‘Good Friday Spell’ from Parsifal
Bruckner – Symphony No.9
18 January 2018
Bruch – Violin Concerto No.1, Op.26
Mahler – Symphony No.1
On the same day that The New York Times pondered whether empty seats at the Metropolitan Opera were due to too much standard bel canto repertoire being staged in recent years, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was playing to a sold-out house a few blocks away in Carnegie Hall. For two evenings, what is arguably the best orchestra in the world stuck to the core German repertoire, programming four works composed within a span of some twenty-odd years. In spite of a what might be considered a poisoned pill of standard, stale repertoire, there were full houses and standing ovations. What’s up?
This is Daniele Gatti’s second season at the helm of the Concertgebouw and much of his renown rests on his command of the late-Romantic and early twentieth-century repertoire. Last January I heard him lead the orchestra in a program of Debussy and Stravinsky in Shanghai (see review). It only seemed natural that this year’s tour would feature the late Romantics; works with which not only he but also the Concertgebouw have built their international standings. Moreover, if you have eight really fine horn players at hand, you might as well tell half of them to pack their Wagner tubas.
Wagner was at the core of the first of the two concerts, with music from Parsifal and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony casting a spell of spiritual transcendence and redemption over the evening. In the Prelude to Act III and the ‘Good Friday Spell’ from Parsifal, the Concertgebouw’s strengths – the shimmering, plush carpet of string sound, the matchless woodwind playing and the wondrous brass sound – were on full display. There was no drama on the podium; Gatti captured the mysticism and the emotion of the music with a minimum of movement. The orchestra and audience responded in kind; there was actually silence in Carnegie Hall during flu season as the final notes sounded.
What would we make of Bruckner if he were alive today? The contradictions in the man are manifold: the near fanatical Wagner worship, a fusty, conservative Catholic faith and a stifled sexuality that found him proposing to teenage girls in his final years. His prayers that he would live long enough to complete the Ninth Symphony, on which he had labored for over a decade, went unanswered. Gatti chose to stick with tradition by not tagging on a realization of the final movement that either intrigues or antagonizes listeners and critics.
It is music of wild extremes, the first movement beginning with a soft tremolo in the strings and evolving into beautiful, lyrical melodies followed by crashing, thunderous climaxes. In the scherzo the atmosphere was charged with the incisive pizzicato playing of the strings. The horn playing was liquid and meltingly beautiful, never more so than in what Bruckner famously called his Farewell to Life in the third movement. Gatti gave the music space and breadth and, after all of the angst, let the sound fade into a beautiful otherworldliness.
The following evening’s concert opened with Bruch’s popular and brilliant Violin Concerto No.1 featuring violinist Janine Jansen, who is in the midst of playing five concerts in a Carnegie Hall’s Perspective series. Jansen has a singular, musical personality; she is almost reluctant to dazzle with brilliance, but not shy of bewitching with emotion. So while the trills, double-stops and lightning-quick fingerings are there, it was the lyrical, meditative passages, especially the wistful melodies of the second movement, that were spellbinding. Gatti and the orchestra were alert to her every nuance, with the orchestra seeming to adapt to her lean sound. For an encore, she was joined by clarinet and cello in a setting of a Spanish folk song, ‘Nana’ by Manuel De Falla. It was sincere and mesmerizing, just as the violinist herself is.
Mahler’s First Symphony brought the series to an end. With this work, Gatti was at the fore, investing it with an unaccustomed urgency and a sense of foreboding. The opening theme, borrowed from The Songs of the Wayfarer, was subdued rather than cheerful, and by the time the wanderer came to rest under a tree, the mood was downright despondent. As in the Bruch, the orchestra took on a more sinuous sound than had been displayed in the Wagner and Bruckner. Every detail of Mahler’s brilliant orchestration came alive, from the bird calls to the raucous, dizzying dances of the third movement. It was terrifying to hear the massed strings violently slicing through the air.
The brass had an off night with some smudged entrances and iffy intonation. The principal trumpet, whose liquid tone impressed throughout, dropped his mute. It happens. In the closing bars, Mahler called for the seven horns to outshine the trumpets; they took up the challenge and emerged triumphant. The audience was ecstatic.