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