This second of two Proms by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was very much “a game of two halves.” All the more surprising from these distinguished players who, conducted by Danielle Gatti, gave such varied responses to repertoire that should have been meat and drink for them.
If you ever wanted to know what beige sounds like, then this lacklustre account of Haydn’s ‘Bear’ (the first of the six ‘Paris’ Symphonies) gave an idea, drained of variegation and lacking vitality. It was all neat and tidy in this slimmed-down rendition, yet from the opening (one “of the most explosive and dynamic movements in all Haydn”) until the very end the composer’s characteristic élan and humour were rarely present. Had the timpanist not been so polite and horns favoured rather than trumpets, there might have been greater zest. Some well-placed dynamics arrived in the Allegretto though (including intimate string pianissimos), and despite eloquent winds in the Minuet flute and oboe brought little sign of the “red-and-gold pomp of the ancien regime.” The rustic quality of the Finale was there in the bagpipe-like drones, but the animal to which this Symphony owes its nickname (not given by Haydn) was largely earthbound and too-well-behaved.
The second half was a captivating account of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – which the Amsterdam orchestra has a special relationship with ever since the composer conducted it twice there in the same concert in October 1904 (the premiere had been in Munich three years previously).
Gatti emphasised the work’s chamber qualities with controlled volumes and highlighting its delicate sonorities. From the opening sleigh-bells (with precision-tooled flute and clarinet articulation) to the radiance of the sung Finale, charm, freshness and innocence were at the forefront, marked by playing of exceptional subtlety and polish. Myriad tempo-changes were deftly achieved and the first movement’s arching trajectory unfolded with transparent ease; ripe woodwind colouration added to the unbuttoned youthful carousing and the closing bars (with horn and ppp violins) were ear-catching.
Any sense of demons lurking behind the Scherzo (more impish here), led by Vesko Eschkenazy’s tuned-higher violin, were largely kept at bay by Laurens Woudenberg’s superb horn-playing and Gatti’s forward-moving tempo. In one passage the teasing counterpoints between winds and strings was so buoyant and perfectly judged it seemed we had burst in on something Baroque. Strings purred in the idealised Eden of the slow movement; not as spacious as some, but it had heart-easing poise. In a theatrical gesture at the climax an angelic and dignified Chen Reiss appeared behind and above the orchestra, and in the ‘Wunderhorn’ Finale her radiant soprano transported us to the heavenly vision so central to this Symphony. Gatti’s tempos may have veered towards the extreme, but for sheer joyfulness and serenity this was unbeatable: Paradise gained!
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms