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Gatti Beethoven Cycle; Freddy Kempf (pf), Amanda Roocroft (soprano), Jean Rigby (mezzo), Stephen O’Mara (tenor) Alastair Miles (bass), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Daniele Gatti; RFH:1st & 3rd June, 2003 (AR)


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 and passion.

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.

Alex Russell



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