In the humidity of an over-heated Royal Albert Hall Daniele Gatti and
the Royal Philharmonic opened their concert with an equally heated performance
of Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration Op.24 (1888/9).
opening hushed bars had been ideally paced, with firm timpani, and an
exquisitely played flute solo above rippling strings; the sudden entry
of the timpani, presaging death, was compelling in its impact. As the
music savagely progressed, Gatti coaxed some powerful, menacing sounds
from trombones and horns. The concluding passages, from the transfiguration
to the affirmation of the coda, were profoundly moving and exquisitely
played, with Gatti securing a very broad but rock steady tempo (reminiscent
of Klemperer), treating these transitional passages as a shimmering
rainbow arc of sublime sounds. This was certainly one of the finest
accounts I have heard of this difficult section of the work.
Mahler’s intimate Rückert Lieder (1901-02), with its sparse
chamber-like orchestration, does not fit well with the vastness of the
Royal Albert Hall. In Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft and Liebst
du um Schönheit the German-born baritone Detlef Roth was often
dull, colourless and seemingly indifferent to both text and insight.
Things improved considerably in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
with Roth suddenly coming to life with his singing becoming both characterful
and warm. There was a considerable gap between this and the following
bin der Welt abhanden gekommen as conductor and singer prepared
themselves for arguably Mahler’s most sublimely poignant song. Roth’s
subtle melting tone and refined phrasing was complemented by some expressive
woodwind solos, but the ‘Concert Law Concerning Bronchitics’ prevailed,
and the magic was ultimately ruined throughout by some excessively loud
coughing – which came across far louder than both singer and orchestra.
The concluding Um Mitternacht was powerfully projected and deeply
felt, with Roth assuming a rich dark tone and the woodwinds producing
stridently haunting sounds. Throughout Gatti and the RPO gave sensitive
highlight of the evening was a volatile and dramatic account of Sergey
Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky – Cantata, Op. 78 (1938, arr: 1939),
adapted from his score for the celebrated Eisenstein film.
under the Mongolian Yoke was taken at a far brisker tempo than usual
but it did not sound rushed under Gatti’s assured direction. The London
Philharmonic Choir and Crouch End Festival Chorus were full blooded
and carried great weight in Song of Alexander Nevsky while the
RPO strings in The Crusaders in Pskov took on a radiant translucency,
and the bass drum was played with punctuating dry thuds (which are invariably
muffled and denied full presence in the studio when recording this score).
was The Battle on the Ice that had Gatti and his forces at their
most intense and incisive: rarely have I heard this sound so visceral,
with the brass and percussion playing with nerve shattering impact.
Gatti conducted with such a raw frenzy it seemed the performance was
on the verge of toppling over the edge into sound-anarchy, but the conductor
was able to hold his forces together and remained in total control –
an unforgettable and exhilarating flirtation with danger, a walk on
the musical wild side rarely heard on disc.
battle ended and we were left in desolation with the RPO’s floating
strings taking on a very moving, fragile sound. The Field of the
Dead introduced us to the hauntingly solemn Russian mezzo-soprano,
Ekaterina Gubanova, who had the right, deep register and riveting presence
to hold the audience spellbound. Her dark velvet voice had a thrilling,
grainy edge to it which perfectly expressed the lament of a young girl
seeking the living amongst the dead on the battle field; as she finished
she walked off the platform in slow-motion, which preserved the mood
and perfectly concluded her unforgettable singing.
finale, Alexander’s entry into Pskov (recapitulating earlier
themes) opened with bouyant woodwind solos capturing the festive mood
of this triumphant music. Gatti’s rhythmically taut conducting brought
the music to a fitting conclusion, with the final percussion section
suitably energetic and emphatic: a burning conclusion to a baking evening.