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PROM 31: R Strauss; Mahler; Prokofiev; Ekaterina Gubanova, (mezzo); Detlef Roth, (baritone); London Philharmonic Choir; Crouch End Festival Chorus; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Daniele Gatti, Royal Albert Hall, 11th August 2003 (AR)

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).

The 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.

Gustav 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 Ich 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 support.

The 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.

Russia 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).

It 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Alex Russell

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