Sunday, 3 September 2017

Animal instincts : Gatti RCOA Mahler 4 Haydn Prom

Daniele Gatti, Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, credit Annedokter

 Danielle Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam  with Haydn Symphony No. 82 in C major, 'The Bear' and Mahler Symphony no 4 at Prom 66 at the Royal Albert Hall.  A combination which enhanced both parts of the programme.  A lively, agile Haydn bringing out its warm hearted humour.  Two hundred and fifty years ago, people thought bear dancing was entertainment. Wild animals tamed and controlled by man!  Nowadays, we realize that the wild animals were the men and the bears victims of torture.  Since bears can't actually dance, the music they danced to was  bucolic. Hence the Dudelsack (bagpipes) with its earthy drone. A top-flight composer, writing for rich folks, (who probably laughed at the peasants, too)  and now, a top-flight  orchestra playing for the Proms. What irony!  But better that than reality.

And so to Mahler's Symphony no 4, the last true Wunderhorn symphony,  which connects to a world long past, where barbarism against people was normal, even admired. It's often assumed that this symphony is cheerful and sunny, and in some contexts it does work very well that way. But beneath the bucolic charm, there's horror. Elftausend Jungfrauen zu tanzen sich trauen, Sankt Ursula selbst dazu Lacht. But St. Ursula caused the death of 11,000 virgins, who followed her in a Crusade across Europe. Most never got to the Holy Land, and even if they had, for what purpose? More irony - sainthood and delusion, the message still relevant in our supposedly more enlightened times.  But it's OK ! the dead kids are singing in Heaven, and there's lots to eat. The animals, like the children,  are happy to die. Wir führen ein geduldig's, Unschuldig's, geduldig's, Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod.  (Please see my article Why Greedy Kids in Mahler 4) 

Mahler, Mengelberg and Diepenbrook, 1904

The interpretation of the final movement in this symphony has a bearing on performance, though there are many possible ways of doing it. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam have been doing it since 1904, when it was radical New Music. Yet music is endlessly reborn anew in each performance - different players, different listeners, always something new to discover.  That's yet another hidden message embedded in Mahler's Fourth Symphony.  Das himmlisches Leben  connects to Das irdische Leben, where a child starves because its mother keeps promising to feed it, but doesn't.  And so the dilemma of being an artist with integrity, who creates whether the public gets it or not.  Mahler's sympathies lie with the artist..  

Fortunately some listeners do get it.  Gatti's approach to the symphony is refined but purposeful, never losing sight of the ultimate goal. Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast :  No need to rush, but rather linger in the present, or more accurately, perhaps, in memories of a sunnier past.  Because good things will end. Just as in  Mahler's Symphony no 2, we linger as long as possible, resisting the inevitable. Gatti doesn't drag though, and his pace is sunlit. The Ländler rhythms suggest folk music, peasants - and peasant children - dancing. The RCOA can do rustic with elegance. For all we know, to a Dudelsack or similar middle-European instrument : nothing sophisticated.  Mahler pushes forth with the theme for solo violin, a reference to Freund Hein, the Fiddler whose presence leads to Death.  The Pied Piper, like St Ursula, leading the innocent to doom.  Thus the macabre scordatura tuning.  In deliberate contrast, the third movement, marked Ruhevoll, was particularly well defined. The cataclysmic final section, with its blazing trumpets, timpani and cymbals resolving back to the gentler theme highlighted with harps was good too, preparing the way for the all-important last movement.  

The soloist here was Chen Reiss. A pleasant voice, on the lighter side, which often works well in this part.  though it's not essential, since it can support quite  a lot of sensuality, which is important, since the text refers to earthly, earthy pleasures, like red meat.  It has been done extremely well by heftier voices and even by mezzos.  Gatti and the orchestra supplied the humour. Wonderful "animal" noises like the bleating of sheep and the wailing of oxen.  The orchestra also supplied the colour and drama - sharp, focused playing, reminding us that the knife-like edge is never far away, even in this pastoral vision. 


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