RPO/Gatti Rite of Spring

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La mer
The Rite of Spring

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 27 October, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was not the lengthiest – nor the most expected – of programmes, but it was one which found the RPO in fine form under its Music Director.

Debussy’s Prélude was characterised by most expressive wind solos – beginning with a perfectly poised opening flute – supported by a cushion of quite sensuous string sound which underlined the daring nature of Debussy’s harmonic writing and colouring. If the horns were, initially, a little loud, one would like to have heard more from the harps whose important contributions to the scoring did not always register as strongly as they should. The central climax was well-judged and avoided excessive lushness, and Gatti’s rather ‘cool’ approach to the whole was most effective.

La Mer was, overall, rather less successful. Debussy subtitled the work ‘Three Symphonic Sketches’, but Gatti’s view seemed more episodic than the composer’s subtitle implies. The varied sections of the first of the three movements (‘From dawn to midday on the sea’) sounded somehow disconnected. I would have liked to have heard the cellos ‘digging in’ rather more in their exposed passage, and the conclusion felt oddly perfunctory.

The scherzo-like ‘Games of the waves’ can be more playful than it was on this occasion, though the orchestral playing was outstanding – the fiendishly difficult glockenspiel part was splendidly executed. The concluding ‘Dialogue of the wind and the sea’ could have started more ominously, and though the climaxes were loud, they did not seem to be a logical outcome of what had gone before.

But the performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was quite the best I have heard for some time.

There was an appropriate sense of urgency – though Gatti’s tempos never felt rushed – yet the more reflective moments were unusually poignant with their recollections of ancient (if not primeval) folk-like melodies.

The high bassoon solo at the start was affecting, and in thisintroduction Gatti ensured that the textures were remarkably clear. Every strand at the climax registered. The ‘stamping’ chords at the start of the first dance were brutal in their attack, and one was struck by just how startling this music must have seemed to its first listeners. Brass brayed balefully – though the balance was never thrown even when they were at their strongest. The trombone section, in particular, made a powerful contribution.

At the polyrhythmic climax of ‘Procession of the Sage’ – theferocity of which has never been matched in any subsequent music, and which was properly terrifying in this performance – the guiro part was given to two washboards, whose metallic scraping was distinctly audible. However, the intended sonority is for a wooden instrument, and so the resultant sound did not conform to Robert Craft’s striking analogous description of “a giant locust rubbing its appendages together”.

But the subsequent ‘Dance of the Earth’ – with dynamics (as elsewhere) carefully observed, brought Part One to an breathless close.

The nocturnal music which begins the second part conveyed a sense of unease – of troubled calm – and the rhythms in the subsequent ‘Glorification of the chosen one’ were precisely realised. A pity the tambourine delivered two notes (instead of a single quaver) at the start of the ‘Ritual action of the ancestors’ and a horn entered prematurely, but such incidental infelicities were of little consequence to the integrity of this reading which culminated in a truly compelling realisation of the final dance in which the implicit exultation was made stirringly manifest.

There was a real sense of a ‘dance’ – a quality seldom realised – though Craft and the London Symphony Orchestra convey this on their 1995 recording recently reissued on Naxos; and Stravinsky’s poetic brutality and fundamental exhilaration were strongly conveyed. This was a thoroughly convincing performance.

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