In the penultimate concert of
his somewhat uneven Beethoven Cycle, Daniele Gatti began with an exceptionally
refined and measured account of the Coriolan Overture. The conductor
secured some very expressive and gutsy string playing, lending the right
degree of gravitas that this dramatic work requires. Gatti perfectly
judged the pauses between Beethoven’s menacing chords, creating great
tension, while the difficult hushed closing passage, which can sound
fragmented, was rendered with masterly precision; this was a carefully
considered reading, played by the LPO with great panache.
The highlight proved to be Freddy
Kempf’s intoxicating account of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the
‘Emperor’. The Allegro was played with fluency and intensity,
with Kempf always giving us the illusion of risk and danger whilst maintaining
complete mastery of the keyboard. This movement can often sound very
heavy and rhetorical, but this pianist, whilst sounding intensely dramatic,
always gave the notes perfect luminosity and lightness.
Kempf excelled himself in the
Adagio, producing sounds beyond praise; his notes had a sheen
which was hypnotic, leaving the listener both enhanced and entranced.
The transitional link between the Adagio and the Rondo: Allegro
was seamless and subtle, with Kempf shifting gear and emotion perfectly
and switching to a jubilant playfulness. His touch was agile and light,
with effortlessly floated phrases. This was without doubt a distinguished
performance of this popular, over-played work, combining elegance, drama
Gatti’s string-dominated reading
of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony was refreshingly direct and urgent, but
somewhat marred by bad orchestral balance suppressing the woodwind and
brass. He mastered the notoriously difficult transition from the opening
Adagio to the Allegro vivace with great fluency and ease.
The RPO’s divided strings were in their element here, playing with great
vigour which at times smothered the rest of the orchestra. However,
whilst the Adagio was eloquent and buoyant, the woodwind were
unfocused and etiolated; the Adagio vivace, although conducted
with vitality and urgency, found the orchestral textures often blurred
and rather woolly.
The closing Allegro ma non
troppo was taken at an accelerated pace with the strings producing
a tough gutsy sound, but some important woodwind details were completely
lost – notably the celebrated oboe obligatto, which was inaudible (indeed,
throughout the symphony the eloquent writing for the oboe was just lost),
whilst the under-stated horns and trumpets appeared to be miming rather
than playing. Another element that was sadly toned down was the timpani.
It was not the timpanist’s playing that was at fault, since he played
with great precision and agility, but the decision to use soft sticks.
After recently hearing ‘period’ performances of Beethoven’s second and
third Symphonies played with hard sticks under the direction of Minkowski
and Bruggen , it made me realise how essential they are: the RPO’s soft
stick approach just has no impact.
The final concert of Gatti’s Beethoven
Cycle again suffered from very poor orchestral balance in the Eighth
Symphony, but this was fortunately mastered and overcome in the concluding
work, the Ninth ‘Choral’ Symphony.
Gatti’s string-oriented performance
of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony was lightweight with the trumpets and
horns sounding rather suppressed. While Gatti’s conducting was vivacious
he again tended to allow the strings to swamp the rest of the orchestra.
The opening Allegro vivace
e con brio was athletic and rhythmically taut, while the Allegretto
scherzando had some well articulated woodwind which for once were
heard clearly, but the closing Allegro vivace was far too heavy
handed and laboured – resulting in a kind of leaden vivacity.
In stark contrast to the preceding
symphony, Gatti’s reading of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony ‘Choral’ was
suitably weighty, with a far better balance between strings and the
rest of the orchestra (akin to his beautifully balanced account of the
Seventh Symphony in this Beethoven Cycle).
The opening Allegro ma non
troppo was tough, measured and forward thrusting. Unlike the Eighth,
here the brass and woodwind had great forward projection, and the horns
and trumpets were superbly strident. Gatti judged the tempi well, getting
just the right degree of urgency and momentum. The molto vivace
had great swagger and lilt with the horns being well projected and rugged
in tone, whilst the timpani were really assertive (so lacking in the
rest of the cycle). What was disappointing was the rather static and
sedate Adagio e cantabile which was curiously clinical, lacking
both depth and serenity.
Gatti opened the Allegro vivace
with great force and extracted some very grainy cello playing. He gradually
built up the tension as the movement progressed, but by the closing
passages the music had devolved into mere noise, with the RPO and Philharmonia
Chorus (on loan) producing a distorted and congested sound. Even in
these closing bars all the important woodwind detail should still be
audible (as they always were with Klemperer and Toscanini). The singing
was often rather coarse toned and shrill sounding, frequently drowning
out the hapless soloists who were placed at the back of the stage, far
too close to the chorus.
The four soloists were adequate
if rather badly matched: bass Alastair Miles was powerful, as was the
mezzo of Jean Rigby, while tenor Stephen O’Mara was virtually inaudible
and soprano Amanda Roocroft was far too piercing, producing some distorted
notes in her upper register.
While Gatti’s ‘in your face’ Beethoven
has the essential fire and drive, there was something often brash about
his readings. The audience seemed underwhelmed by this performance,
the applause sounding dutiful rather than ecstatic. The highlight of
Gatti’s uneven Beethoven Cycle was Freddy Kempf’s magnificent and masterful
playing of the five Beethoven piano concerti.