Philharmonia Orchestra/Daniele Gatti – Parsifal & Mahler 5

Parsifal – Prelude to Act I; Good Friday Music
Symphony No.5

Philharmonia Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 17 May, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Daniele GattiReactions to performances of Mahler symphonies are notoriously subjective and especially so to the Fifth. Is it tragedy writ large, a precursor to the Ninth, or is it a postscript to the fantasy of ‘Wunderhorn’, a natural albeit darker extension of the preceding four symphonies? For this listener, without wishing to underplay its inherent drama, it is closer to ‘Wunderhorn’. A good indicator as to the nature of a particular performance lies in a conductor’s treatment of the Adagietto and the finale. Listening to these two movements in some performances one could be forgiven for thinking that the former carries the cares of the World whilst the latter is the most grandiose overblown apotheosis; in other hands, as here, the Adagietto is deeply affecting but its emotion is implied rather than spelled out and – for all its bounding vigour and flamboyant conclusion – the finale also has a playful tongue-in-cheek quality.

Daniele Gatti has championed Mahler over many years. Conducting from memory, it was clear that he has internalised the Fifth Symphony to a remarkable degree, fully aware of its every nook and cranny. It was also clear that his approach – lithe and forward-moving – had rather more in common with, say, Rafael Kubelík and Bruno Walter than with the psychodrama of Leonard Bernstein.

Gatti underplayed the halting tragedy of the opening funeral march but where he was highly effective – especially when complemented by superbly committed playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra – was in putting across a coherent view of the work’s structure. The first two movements were taken without any break, the opening processional leading into the ferocious second movement. Then the expansive central scherzo offered a kind of rustic pivot and the remaining two movements led quite naturally one to the other, concluding the symphony’s journey from darkness to triumphant D major light. Despite his generally swift approach Gatti was also unusually eloquent in those brief moments of stillness, such as in the second movement when the cellos lament quietly but weightlessly over a timpani roll. The playing throughout was of the highest order, especially Katy Woolley’s secure horn solos. Not perhaps the last word on the piece – there are greater depths to be plumbed – but compelling nonetheless, Mahler with real passion as per Barbirolli and a welcome antidote to more clinical performances.

Gatti also has a particular affinity with Parsifal. He conducted it at Bayreuth earlier this year and regularly programmes the orchestral sections. Ideally this is music which cries out to be heard in the theatre, the sound rising from the pit; heard in a fully illuminated Royal Festival Hall it loses a little of its mysterious magic. Still, there was an appropriately reverential hush as the long paragraphs of the Act One ‘Prelude’ unfolded and a back-lit radiance to the ‘Good Friday Music’, Steven Hudson’s oboe stealing gently across the scene. I certainly hope this will not be the only time I hear Daniele Gatti and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

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