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Seen and Heard Prom Review
Prom 56: Hindemith, Wagner, Beethoven; Deborah Voigt (sop), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Daniele Gatti (conductor); Royal Albert Hall, 27th August 2004 (AR)
Daniele Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra offered the Promenaders an ostensibly beautifully balanced programme of music by three diverse German composers. However, whilst the first half of the evening was truly magnificent, the second half did not live up this very high standard and fell very flat indeed. It was as if a different orchestra and conductor had been smuggled in during the interval.
Paul Hindemith’s underrated Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 53 is somewhat of a rarity in concert halls today. However, the strings and brass of the RPO seized the chance the work offers to show off their virtuosity. Gatti conducted with agility and attack, having total control over the orchestral dynamics and angular rhythms. The strings in particular had incredible bite and body, without that smoothed-out, homogenised texture found in some of today’s slick sounding orchestras, whilst the deliberately brittle graininess of the brass made the music sound visceral and alive.
Soprano Deborah Voigt’s voice was warm and serene - the ideal instrument for Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. This song cycle is more ideally suited to a smaller, more intimate space, yet her light voice was never lost in the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall. She projected admirably but never sacrificed the poignant intimacy of the songs; indeed, the delicate reserve of her voice made the songs even more moving.
In the Hot House was a case in point: her voice was radiant and penetrating yet never shrill or loud. In Dreams her voice was tranquil, with delicate, fragmented phrasing. Throughout, Gatti’s accompaniment was sensitive and perfectly balanced, totally in accord with the soloist. This was a very refined and moving performance by a singer who managed to convey the pathos of the songs and was always audible.
The highlight of the evening was an incandescent performance of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Gatti’s grasp of structure and tempi were faultless and his attention to the minutest detail was quite astonishing. The orchestra was both serene and subdued, taking the music at a broad and measured pace but never allowing it to drag. Gatti slowly and gradually built up the music to its orgasmic climax without ever over-milking the emotion. Judging by Gatti’s paradigmatic performance of the Prelude he should really be conducting at the Bayreuth Festival.
Voigt excelled herself in the Liebestod which followed, her voice ideally suited to Isolde, expressing a youthful innocence combined with vulnerability, soaring easily above the orchestra in her ecstatic moments: she was pure bliss.
After such an exhilarating and inspiring first half, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony was somewhat of an anticlimax. This was a pedestrian and bromidic performance of dumbed-down Beethoven for easy listening, totally bereft of the gravitas demanded by this revolutionary and galvanic work.
The Allegro con brio was lack-lustre and lightweight, devoid of drive and dynamic contrasts, with woodwind and timpani being barely audible. This may have something to do with the layout of the orchestra with divided strings and eight double basses placed along the back of the platform. The ’cellos and double bases lacked body and weight and therefore robbed the music of its expressivity, darkness and throbbing drama.
The Funeral March was particularly uninspired and hollow, missing any sense of drama, tension or despair and for once Gatti’s pacing was flat-footed. The all-important writing for the timpani went for nothing, with the RPO’s timpanist sounding somewhat ineffectual. (To hear how the timpani should sound, listen to Antal Dorati’s celebrated Mercury recording with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.) With the Scherzo things at last took fire with Gatti securing rhythmic bite from the violins despite the blurred and brittle playing from the horns. The Finale: Allegro molto was rather rushed, producing congested orchestral textures, with the woodwind passages especially sounding smudged. Although taken at full speed, the concluding passages were lacking in exhilaration and exaltation. This was certainly the dullest Beethoven I have heard for a long time, which is a great pity as the first half the evening had been so memorable.
Hindemith: Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 50;
Guido Cantelli, New York Philharmonic Carnegie Hall 1956:
AS Disc: AS 522
Wagner: Wesendonk Lieder: Kirsten Flagstad (soprano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Hans Knappertsbusch (conductor):
Decca Legends: CD: 4684862
Beethoven ‘Eroica’ Symphony – Antal Dorati (conductor); Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra: Mercury Living Presence: Haydn House: HH1016 (http://www.haydnhouse.com)