Gatti, Vienna Phil open Brahms cycle with routine Third, beaming First

Sat Feb 28, 2015 at 2:33 pm
Daniele Gatti conducted the VIenna Philharmonic Orchestra in Brahms' FIrst and Third Symphonies Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

Daniele Gatti conducted the VIenna Philharmonic Orchestra in Brahms’ First and Third symphonies Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

For Brahms fanatics, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall stand has been among the most anticipated highlights of this season. To hear the composer’s four symphonies in one weekend, each in its own way a marvel of artistic achievement (to say nothing of Ein Deutsches Requiem, to be performed on Sunday), played by the world-beating VPO under the baton of the passionate Daniele Gatti, is a singularly enticing prospect.

But to execute such a plan, splitting four weighty symphonies between two programs on back-to-back nights, requires sustaining an incredible degree of focus, and comparison between the two halves of such a concert seems inevitable, particularly when the contrast is so stark as it was on Friday’s program.

The Symphony No. 3 came nowhere near its massive potential. The first bars offered considerable hope for a memorable performance–the opening chords were suitably expansive, and the first lyrical strains that followed the cascades were finely crafted.

But after that promising start, the music nearly fell apart. Shaky ensemble was a major culprit, but just as guilty were a lack of definition, careless balancing, and a general chilliness in Gatti’s demeanor that made a striking contrast to the warmth of sound coming out of the orchestra. The Andante developed well, ultimately reaching a golden bloom, but took considerable time to find its way there.

The problem was, Gatti seemed to be taking a macrostructural approach to the piece, without really savoring the immediate moment. This was nowhere more apparent than in the third movement, where dynamics were tight and the tempo rather stiff. The beginning of the finale, by contrast, seemed almost too micro-managed. (It was difficult to tell, actually, whether Gatti was going overboard with his rubato or simply didn’t like his original tempo and tried to choose a new one.) Regardless, as it progressed, the music fell into that same nonchalant vein, thoughtfully guided but not keenly felt.

It was surprising to hear this sort of conducting from Gatti, who has previously led fierce performances in his New York appearances. His Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013 was unforgettable, a nuanced, detailed, visceral interpretation worlds away from Friday’s unpolished and even routine Brahms Three.

The “real” Gatti, thank goodness, showed up after intermission and delivered an inspired account of the Symphony No. 1. It was as though he had gone offstage and flipped a switch–Right away, there was an irresistible, pulsing energy to the orchestra’s playing, bringing right from the movement’s pungent opening a grainier, more flavorful sound than anything we had heard in the earlier symphony.

In the Andante Gatti actively shaped the music in real time, achieving splendid variety from moment to moment. In an echoed phrase, he would find not just a different dynamic level, but an entirely different color for the second statement. Even in this bucolic music, the energy was intense, leading directly into the gleaming third movement with almost no pause at all.

The finale of this symphony was a summation of all of Gatti’s and the players’ skill, a spacious, authoritative reading that maintained a clear trajectory as it developed. The familiar theme glowed with noble sentiment, a feeling that persisted until the very closing bars. Gatti’s crisp pacing up to that point left plenty of room for a truly majestic finish.

The Vienna Philharmonic and Daniele Gatti will perform Brahms’s Symphonies No. 2 and 4 on Saturday at 8 p.m. On Sunday they will perform Ein Deutsches Requiem at 2 p.m. with Diana Damrau, Christian Gerhaher, and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.

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