You don’t have to go to Amsterdam to hear great Mahler—but it helps. When I heard Daniele Gatti’s beyond-stunning Mahler Fourth Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic in February this year, I knew that there would be no excuse to miss his Mahler in Amsterdam. That was going to be the Fifth Symphony, with the Concertgebouw this June as part of the Concertgebouw’s two-year Mahler cycle (where I had heard Mariss Jansons’ Third, just weeks before the Gatti Munich performance). The allure is great not the least because the Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the four orchestras with the greatest Mahler tradition—and among them the most devoted to Mahler. (The other three are the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic [even if their Mahler-tradition is a bit reluctant], and the Munich Philharmonic [which never bothered treating their heritage professionally and can’t currently be considered Mahler-specialists, despite that above mentioned Fourth].) And hearing the Concertgebouw is also a chance to meet some of their fabulously musical players for a beer (or two, or three – girlfriend permitting), so a trip to Amsterdam is always something to look forward to, despite the faint attraction the city otherwise exerts on me.
High hopes can be the perfect setup for dull disappointment, but fortunately that’s not what happened this time. Sure, Gatti’s Fifth wasn’t the ear-opening experience of his Munich Fourth, but it was so refreshing to hear Mahler that is the polar opposite of Mariss Jansons’ carefully calibrated approach. At least with Gatti I heard everything that contributed to making the Fourth great—which in one word is: Risk. Gatti takes risks everywhere, is unpredictable (to the orchestra, too, by all appearances). This Fifth lacked greater lines and coherence—the 10 minute Adagietto especially didn’t gel—and it offered several really messy spots where Gatti, seemingly out of nowhere, took insanely brisk tempi next to large leisurely patches. At the same time, there was a palpable level of excitement present at all times which kept Mahler more exciting than a more scrupulously detailed version could ever have managed.
In the first half of the program, Gatti led the orchestra through Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll with results that exhibited to perfection the band’s tender, sonorous side and the ‘soft accuracy’ of the RCO. At the same time it should be admitted that even woodwinds that sound like butter, and the most beautiful orchestral sound, can’t hide the fact—at least not in a leisurely performance such as this—that 20 minutes is more than enough time to thoroughly exhaust the meager musical material of the Siegfried Idyll. Between the acts, there was communal watching of Germany vs. Ghana—the Dutch faction of the Concertgebouw probably rooting for Germany so that their team might defeat them in the finale for the most delicious possible victory.