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S & H Concert Review

Strauss & Mahler; Christine Schafer (sop); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Daniele Gatti (con); RFH; 5th May, 2004 (AR)

The unifying themes of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s programme were of resignation and farewell, typified by the last completed orchestral works of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

The premier of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs was given in May 1950 by Kirsten Flagstad and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Furtwängler in the Royal Albert Hall, on which occasion they were sung not in chronological order but with Beim Schlafengehen first and ending naturally with Im Abendrot, September and Frühling.

These late songs are well suited to both weightier, Wagnerian voices such as Flagstad and Nilsson, as well as lighter voices such as Lisa Della Casa and Renée Fleming. Christine Schafer’s delicate soprano is placed in the latter group, and she perfectly expressed the poignancy of Strauss’s solemn farewell.

In Frühling Shafer’s impassioned and lyrical voice was somewhat lost under the sheer brute force of the RP0. In September she assumed a vulnerable fragility, her fragrant voice seeming subdued as if in mourning, heightened by the silver toned violin solo of Clio Gould. Beim Schlafengehen was by far the finest sung, with her voice soaring effortlessly, accompanied by a perfectly pitched mellow horn solo. For Im Abendrot Schafer took on a tranquil, gentle radiance as if she were singing from afar. Unfortunately, the closing orchestral passages were spoilt with the woodwind being badly out of sync with their colleagues.

The schizoid psychology of Mahler’s Ninth is not about the emollient perfection of a ‘beautiful’ homogenised sound (as can sometimes seem the case with more illustrious orchestras). Of all Mahler’s symphonies, it calls for an acidic and raucous range of sounds and the RPO had exactly these strident and dissonant qualities in their performance of the work. Gatti stripped away all glossy smoothness making the woodwinds consciously ‘vulgar’ and the brass strident, just as Mahler asked for.

Without a score, Gatti conducted with great authority and passion, holding this colossal work together and uniting the four diverse movements as an architectural whole. Gatti’s raw and rugged reading of the score was refreshingly ‘gut-instinct’ rather than ‘intellectualised’, an approach we have heard in the rather detached, clinical interpretations of Haitink, Giulini, Kubelik and Boulez.

The vast Andante comodo can often sound fragmented, rather like disjointed vignettes, but Gatti’s firm and tight-reigned tempi made the music flow organically. Gatti achieved extremes of emotion from abject terror to melancholic resignation, galvanising the RPO into playing with both a deliberate graininess as well as a poetic sensitivity in the subdued moments. The third climax was truly terrifying, with timpani hammer-blows and snarling trombones having intense impact, leading into the haunting funereal interlude’s piercing solo trumpet: what can sometimes sound ponderous here never dragged. The passages for solo flute were exquisitely played and paced, with a sense of finality coming through.

Mahler marked the Scherzo Etwas täppisch und sehr durg, a marking not always taken at its word by other conductors. Gatti got it spot on, however, and conducted with great swagger: gruff woodwind, gutsy strings and grainy brass characterised the movement. Gatti also caught Mahler’s "defiant" mania of the bucolic Rondo-Burleske to perfection: the trombones and tuba were wonderfully rugged while the horns rasped with a raw edge. The conductor also brought out the tragic pathos in the music that anticipated and set the right mood for the closing movement.

In the Adagio-Finale Gatti directed the strings to play with a weighty and dark expressivity, slowly cooling them down, making them float - the string section seemed almost to levitate. The balance between brass and strings was always sensitively maintained so that every member of the orchestra shone through with a radiant glow. The closing passages of final resignation were mesmerising: the RPO strings played as softly as possible and Gatti perfectly judged the ‘gaps’ between the dying strings making us listen to the silence; there was no closure, just strings melting into nothingness as if the notes were going on eternally. This was not a farewell to life on earth but rebirth in the cosmos.


Alex Russell

Further Listening

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs: Kirsten Flagstad, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler: Royal Albert Hall World Premier May 1950: Simax CD: PSC 1823 and Arlecchino CD: ARL 111/1112.

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs: Jessye Norman, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur; Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder: Jessye Norman, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis: Philips: CD:4647422.

Gustav Mahler: Ninth Symphony/ Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Vorspiel Akt One; Otto Klemperer, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna 1968: Nuova Era: CD: 033 6709.



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