RPO/Gatti Beethoven Cycle – Part 1 (25 March)

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Beethoven performance today tends to be either ’historically aware’ – sometimes an excuse for not having a view on how the music should be played beyond the notes and metronome – or some sort of symbiosis of ’authenticity’ and ’tradition’. While Nikolaus Harnoncourt has sought to de-bunk the latter (and with no lack of ideas regarding the fomer), the full-toned, architecturally-sound and spaciously heroic Beethoven conductors of yesteryear seem to be few; only Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann immediately come to mind as counterparts to Furtwängler, Klemperer and Jochum.

Simon Rattle’s recent ’melting pot’ Beethoven recordings muddy the water further, the new Bärenreiter editions by Jonathan Del Mar seeming to place responsibility on some conductors to adhere to such research. Gatti included it appears.

A Beethoven cycle is a momentous event, the Egmont overture’s slightly ragged opening not the best start then to herald these six RPO concerts of the symphonies and numbered piano concertos. From powerful, hammer-blow string declamations to finishing-post blaze, Gatti rather pushed Egmont along, visceral rather than heroic, crisply detailed if a bit of a rush, which the Finale of the concerto also succumbed to – scrambled, short of wit, with Kempf shoe-horning the notes into place albeit without sacrificing his rapport with the RPO. This was a disappointing conclusion after much to impress in the first two movements, excepting Kempf’s dynamic variation was more mannered than illuminating and his staccato attack sometimes overdone. After a gracious and dignified introduction from Gatti, the space afforded the music fell gratefully on the ear, Kempf often beguilingly expressive and accommodating the orchestra with discretion. He cut loose effectively in the longest and most brilliant of Beethoven’s three cadenzas. The slow movement was magical, time-taken, full of song and ravishing dialogue, not least with the clarinet at the close

Would Gatti conduct the Pastoral differently were it not for scholarship? Here, Beethoven’s country images were swift and smooth, the metronome omnipresent, the music harried, the RPO violins pressured if valiant. There was, however, much to delight the ear regarding textural transparency although sweet-sounding timbres seemed at odds with ’authentic’ proceeding. There were times when Roger Norrington and his London Classical Players would have been the more convincing purveyors. The RPO’s sovereign woodwind brought heavenly expression to the Scene by the Brook, albeit Gatti’s rapid current offered no relaxation. The Peasants proved a hardy bunch at speed, then faster – and it was only the Storm that really came off; tremendous in fact, free-wheeling and truly tempestuous. The Thanksgiving though struck me as ludicrously fast – last one to the pub buys the first round – and while the final bars offered some sort of benediction, this was generally hard-pressed and efficient Beethoven – whatever the composer and his editors might think!

Was Mr Gatti’s instinct for the music suppressed by his desire to the supposed right thing? He does have antiphonal violins – now that is authentic … and uses vibrato, which isn’t (it seems). Gatti is quoted in the programme thus: “In the light of the new critical edition … it has become especially important to reconsider the metronome marks, phrasing, articulation and so on, and to look again at how much the way Beethoven is played is simply the result of tradition. Our approach is to bring … the best of both worlds”. I suggest, on the evidence of this concert, that it is neither one thing nor the other.

  • Second concert – Symphonies 1 & 3 / Piano Concerto 2 – Thursday 27 March, RFH
  • RPO

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