Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – 9th March

Symphony No.38 in D K504 “Prague”
Piano Concerto No.3 in C
Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma

Jean-Philippe Collard (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 March, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It’s some little while since I heard the RPO live; this concert suggested an orchestra in fine fettle. The RPO’s relatively few London appearances and its somewhat nomadic existence (with seasons split between the Barbican, Royal Albert Hall and much travelling) haven’t harmed either its unity or quality. There was much to admire: the strings’ warmth and concord, characterful woodwinds (clarinettist Anthony Pike and oboist John Anderson – no relation – outstanding), the brass’s athleticism and power, and the integrated percussion; there was also much to admire in Gatti’s conducting.

Having just heard Bernard Haitink and the Dresden State Orchestra (Click HERE to Read the review) give a wonderfully structured and sounded-blended account of Mozart’s Prague, Gatti’s more measured, more consciously expressed view came as quite a shock – a pleasant one, for there was something gloriously old-fashioned about the phrasal moulding and expressive ritardandos (often with ear-catching dynamic reductions); sotto voce strings had a beguiling gentleness.

However, in the Mozart and Elgar, Gatti didn’t quite build structures into an overall shape. Thus, in the Prague, while the first two movements were related by generosity of expression and rich sound, the finale sounded harried (never mind that it’s marked Presto) and somewhat inarticulate. While Mozart would have benefited from more vivid trumpets and drums, Gatti also tended to let lower frequencies merge – creating a sort of ’pulsing legato’ if you will – slightly blurring rhythmic foundations.

There was much that was impressive in the sensitive and eloquent way that Gatti lucidly unfolded Enigma – not least a deeply-felt ’Nimrod’ – yet doubts arose: some phrasal over-emphasis that sat uneasily with much that was elegantly turned; Variation 11 (George Sinclair’s bulldog) was rushed along in relation to the whole; the concluding nobilmente didn’t quite summate (the diminuendo-crescendo underdone) and the Toscanini-like abrupt cut-off on the final chord (horrid!) was at-odds with the full-value lingering and textual after-glow that was conspicuous elsewhere.

If I appear pernickety it’s because so much of this beautifully played Enigma was excellent – Gatti’s keenness to elicit internal detail especially rewarding – and such misjudgements stood out. Equally the Mozart didn’t quite have an all-encompassing line over it – the finale’s haste slightly diminishing much that was very effective before it (and I liked Gatti’s attacca between the three movements). Gatti’s tempos and his observance of repeats (including the finale’s second half) extended the programme’s stated 26 minutes for K504 to 34 (Enigma’s suggested 29 was actually, in this performance, 33). While perhaps helpful to the uninitiated, I suggest advising pieces’ playing-times should be qualified as ’approximate’. A listener not interested in (or aware of) interpretation, or a structure’s internal construction, might be confused if musicians’ decisions and printed statements don’t coincide.

The Prokofiev was curious. Great that Collard was in London – his recordings of the French piano literature, especially Faure, are notable; so too his Rachmaninov concertos with Plasson – yet his playing here didn’t quite have the personality I anticipated. He was note-perfect, a rendition of the solo part that was technically and musically impressive, yet there was something lacking. Perhaps it was a visual thing – at no point during his performance did Collard look up from the keyboard, the only eye-contact between him and Gatti was between movements, Gatti taking tempi by assiduously watching Collard’s hands. Had this been an aural-only experience I don’t think I would have heard any suggestion of what I saw: ultimately, reviewing concerts is about listening, not watching. Therefore, the concerto was fine, Collard giving a model rendition, Gatti relishing Prokofiev’s brilliant scoring.

If this concert didn’t quite scoop the jackpot, there’s no doubting that Gatti’s individual musicianship has a compelling quality, which kept an encouragingly large audience listening intently; no doubting either the RPO’s absolute commitment to its Music Director.

  • The remaining two RPO Barbican concerts of Mozart/Prokofiev (both with Gatti) are 6 (which adds Ravel) and 29 April
  • Box Office 020 7638 8891

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