Gatti and the BPO were outstanding (in interpretative and musical terms) when contrasting 20th-century Russian works

GermanyGermany Shostakovich, Stravinsky: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Livestream on the Digital Concert Hall (click here) from the Philharmonie Berlin, 23.1.2021. (GT)

Daniele Gatti

StravinskyApollon musagète (revised version of 1947)

Shostakovich – Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are programming most of the Shostakovich symphonies in this season, juxtaposing his music with other 20th-century Russian composers; the first two concerts featuring the Eighth and Ninth had the orchestra’s chief conductor Kirill Petrenko on the podium. The Italian maestro Daniele Gatti may be an unusual choice in Russian repertoire; however I can recall outstanding interpretations of Russian music by Gatti when he was in charge at the Concertgebouw Orchestra several years ago. The concert programme was Gatti’s choice as he explained in the pre-concert interview. ‘Both composers are close to my heart, Stravinsky died fifty years ago, and Shostakovich has always been close to me from the earliest years.’ He attempted to put side by side the difference in the musical styles by one living in France, and the other in the Soviet Union; one was neo-classical, the other late romantic. ‘Freedom is quite different with Stravinsky who could write what he wanted, in neo-classical style with Apollon, but Shostakovich was restricted in what the regime wanted from him after Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.’ He also added that the experience of playing without an audience adds a greater concentration and he hoped that this will enrich our performances in the future when normal concert life returns.

Stravinsky’s original 1927 ballet was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation for his first US commission of $1000. The ballet staged by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes was choreographed by Georges Balanchine in 1928. Apollon musagète furthered the composer’s neo-classical writing following the 1923 Pulcinella ballet, and Oedipus Rex opera. Stravinsky rearranged the ballet music for an orchestral concert piece in 1947 without the restraint of a half-hour stage work. It was on the notebook of his opera that Stravinsky sketched the innovative opening chord which opens the Premiere tableau. The elegiac idea sounded graceful from the violins, yet threateningly on the basses, and cellos, before the second idea emerged on the violas, which was uplifting and hopeful: quickly the violas picked up the pace, with violins and cellos joining in. In the Deuxième tableau, in Variation de Apollon there was a gorgeous solo from Daishin Kashimoto on the violin, which developed into a charming violin duet with Krzysztof Polonek; there then appeared an enigmatic theme on cellos, at once playful, and whimsical. In Pas d’action, a tentative idea illustrating the dancing of Apollo, joined by the three muses on violins, and cellos – beautiful and graceful – yet solemn in the basses. Variation de Calliope, an achingly attractive idea was luxuriant on cellos accompanied by the violins. The strident attack of Variation de Polime was quickly succeeded by a solitary dance in Variation de Terpsichore – equally wistful and mysterious, edging to seriousness, and haltingly rhythmic. In Variation d’Apollon, the glorious chord of an achingly attractive idea was heard on the viola of Amihai Grosz, echoed by Kashimoto on solo violin, and Václav Vonášek on the contrabassoon. In the Pas de Deux, the portrayal of Apollo’s dance with Terpsichore was fragile and beautiful, in its reprising of the opening scene. Stravinsky reserves his most striking, intense, brilliantly innovative orchestration for the Coda, and finally in Apothéose, Apollo leads the muses to Parnassus in restrained playing, and as if in reflection, with the first theme, intense yet darkly threatening before dying away.

Gatti calls the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony ‘a drama’ and imagines that the ‘final bars are like people are beating you, but I am still showing that I am happy.’ The Moderato, with its great opening, and unfolding of the beautiful second idea on the strings was equally attractive and enigmatic, with interruptions from the bassoons as if portending gloom and menace emphasised by the contrabassoon of Vonášek, whilst suddenly the flute of Emmanuel Pahud offered hope and light. The threatening tones returned with the horns. As different moods were swapped, there was an increase in tempo, and a shuddering climax ending on the timpani; before again the tense mood relaxed with solo flute, and horn, clarinet, piccolo before descending into silence on the celeste. Danger threatened in the Allegretto, with a rasping tone from the low strings, yet the woodwind offered a bright alternative, with a rocking dance-like idea which here seemed like a great dancing bear; and finally, the movement was transformed with a fine solo from the violin of Kashimoto, the solo flute of Pahud, and the two harps removing us from the tragic drama that came before.

Shostakovich wrote some of his finest music in his prolonged slow movements – establishing himself as a truly great composer of Mahlerian greatness. In the Largo, a very measured tempo was taken by Gatti, dragging the music along almost agonisingly, there was so much grief expressed in the oboe solo by Albrecht Meyer, and here the tempo was almost faltering; yet the pitiful wretchedness continued in the solos from flute, clarinets, and bassoon, with the evocation of a theme citing the Russian Orthodox funeral chant. The culmination was underscored by chords from the xylophone and timpani against intense strings, again ending on the celeste. In the Allegro non troppo, Gatti produced excitingly affected playing at a tempo much faster than usual, heightening the tension to a stirringly exciting climax on brass and timpani. The mood was broken by the citation from Shostakovich’s setting to Pushkin’s poem ‘Rebirth’ in a glorious horn solo from Stefan de Leval Jezierski. In the final Allegro section, Gatti moulded a sluggish tempo rising to a tremendous ending, closing emphatically on the percussion and adopting a brisk rhythm without extenuating the tempo as some conductors prefer and – as Alexey Tolstoy wrote – creating ‘an enormous optimistic life’ as the music transforms from D minor to a glorious D major. Certainly, this concert – through contrasting 20th-century Russian works – was outstanding in both interpretative and musical terms.

Gregor Tassie

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