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S & H Concert Review

Gatti Beethoven Cycle: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Freddy Kempt (pf), Daniele Gatti, RFH, 13th May 2003 (AR)


Daniele Gatti continued his highly praised Beethoven Cycle with an invigorating account of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, making it sound closer to the radicalism of the ‘Eroica’ rather than a typically eighteenth century work recalling Haydn or Mozart.

Gatti judged the opening Adagio molto perfectly, keeping the line taut and never, as is often the case, allowing the music to drag. With the Allegro con brio, Gatti elicited angular and jagged rhythms, getting wonderfully crisp and weighty string playing from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. With the Larghetto, the RPO strings took on a darker tone, producing a deeply felt sense of melancholia, while the Scherzo was conducted in a sprightly manner, with Gatti emphasising the spirited, buoyant rhythms. He made the Allegro molto really catch fire, the strings in particular playing with a thrusting urgency bringing the symphony to an exhilarating conclusion. My main problem with this ‘symphony for strings’ performance was that the recessed brass, woodwind and timpani were pallid and lacking in focus and impact.

The highlight of the evening proved to be Freddy Kempf’s mesmeric performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. What was so refreshing about Kempf’s reading was its bold directness and sense of urgency: nothing seemed contrived, mannered or over rehearsed. Kempf’s penchant for taking risks really paid off, making Beethoven sound ‘contemporary’ rather than a museum composer, especially in the cadenza where the pianist was in his element. Here he projected a wonderful sense of danger, making the music sound so fresh and extempore, not so much walking a tightrope as dancing along it.

In the brief Andante Kempf maintained a stern and steely serenity, giving this music much more weight than one normally hears, complemented by the RPO ‘cello’s and double basses playing with an appropriate weight and darkness of tone. With the closing Rondo Vivace, Kempf switched into a lighter and nimble-fingered approach, making the music appear angelic and witty. The audience gave Kempf a well-deserved ovation, which he coyly sought to deflect by pointing towards his conductor as if to share his triumph.

Throughout this virtuoso performance Gatti gave sensitive support and secured some deeply expressive string playing from the RPO: sadly, however, yet again the woodwind, brass and timpani lacked real, definable presence.

After recently praising Gatti’s Beethoven Seventh Symphony, I was eagerly anticipating much of the same dynamism and vigour in his reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: however, I was doomed to be disappointed.

From beginning to end Gatti’s reading of Beethoven’s arguably most popular symphony was a travesty. This was a run-through performance, crudely conducted and loudly bashed out. The famous opening of the Allegro con brio went for nothing, having zero impact, while the movement as a whole had no sense of tension or drama and merely fell flat: the timpani and horns – so important here - simply sounded effete while the woodwind were vapid.

The Andante con moto was missing breadth and grandeur, with the conductor failing to maintain a sense of an unfolding line; his tempi were all over the place, which merely fragmented the music. In this movement (and, indeed, throughout this concert) Gatti developed a curious and affected habit of lowering his hands to his sides, letting his players do their own thing before resuming conducting.

Whilst in the opening Allegro the scurrying ‘cellos had great attack, the transition between the Allegro vivace and the Allegro – linked by badly played timpani taps - was misjudged, obliterating the sense of a build-up and explosion of tension. As Gatti rushed headlong towards the closing passages much important woodwind detail was either smudged or entirely submerged by the rest of the orchestra which became louder and louder, aided and abetted by some very course trombone playing. The closing bars were reduced to a congested noise that had this reviewer fleeing his seat as soon as the predictably noisy applause started.

This was one of the worst performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony I have heard in concert – and the loudest. After some very fine playing in the first half of the evening, this lapse was as hard to understand as to forgive.

Alex Russell




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