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Ionarts at Large: A Mahler Supreme & a Lulu to Die For

When Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is coupled with the Lulu Suite of Berg in concert, one might expect Mahler through the prism of modernity, perhaps à la Gielen. Not so, however, with Daniele Gatti. In the Munich Philharmonic’s concerts from February 26th through 28th, it was instead Berg approached from his most romantic side.

There’s never enough time to rehearse this big orchestral works of the Second Viennese School. Phrases could always be made to melt into another yet more organically. But given the unavoidable limitations of the modern orchestra business, the MPhil did Gatti proud with its warm, soft-cornered rendition. Given the shimmering, elusive beauty of the Rondo to the suspended gorgeousness of the Adagio (sounding like Mahler, molten on the hot oven plate of vanishing tonality) it became absolutely inconceivable how I once thought this music to be in the neighborhood of incomprehensible noise. In Gatti’s flowing, horizontal-propulsive interpretation (conducted from memory), the romantic heart beating so passionately under the occasionally forbidding façade of the Lulu Suite became astonishingly obvious. Even the finest recordings—Gatti’s among them—cannot come close to this ardently enrapturing experience.

After the Lulu Suite—so much more easily appreciable than the overlong completed version of the opera—it seemed clear that Berg, not Mahler, would be the highlight of this concert. As if this didn’t already sound close to hyperbole, it should be telling about the quality of the concert that the Mahler turned out the highlight, after all. For that it would have to have been the best Mahler Fourth I have heard—and it was.

The ingredients of that success? Think Mahler’s first two movements as extensions of Peter and the Wolf. Every instrument, woodwinds, brass, strings, even the harp, were distinct characters. Brashly interjecting trumpets, giggling flutes, slurring bassoons were like unruly children, drunken ruffians, eagerly quacking ducks, nervously yelping dogs. A gaggle of individual voices, extraordinary accelerandos and ritardandos, radical pianissimos, seamy portamentos, daring pauses, and all phrases indulged in with gusto, abandon, and great detail. Colors were applied liberally, risks taken, and the two first movements laced with thick humor. The strings weren’t just sighing, they were howling.

Then the third movement (“the better Adagietto”) in perfectly natural earnestness with neatly rehearsed entries and cumulating in clenched intensity. The performance was dotted by those usually rare “wow” moments where you want to look to your seat neighbor in reaffirming disbelief. For the fourth movement I would usually wish for a clearer, more pure voice than Christiane Oelze’s. But just as in the Lulu parts, her rather more earthly than angelic voice fit this performance perfectly with its character and swaying charm. (She has only recorded the Symphony's Chamber Version, so far.)

This Mahler at once redeemed the sad performance of the Ninth last year and goes a long way in (re-)establishing the Mahler credentials of the orchestra that premiered this (Fourth) Symphony under the baton of the composer. Gatti meanwhile, who was thwarted by difficult acoustics when I last heard him in Garmisch and Bayreuth, proved that special quality that I hear musicians attest him for a while now. As hard as it is to believe that the man has never been the music director of a top symphony orchestra, it’s easy to give credence to rumors that after its English interlude, the next MD of the Berlin Philharmonic (2019) will not be German, but an Italian again.

available at Amazon
Berg, 3 Pieces for Orchestra op.6, Lulu Suite, RCO / Gatti - RCO live 08004
available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No.4, Haitink, Schäfer, RCO, RCOlive 07003

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