Prom 72: Italian Mahler

Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Mussorgsky orch. Shostakovich
Songs and Dances of Death
Symphony No.5

Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 13 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In terms of funding and critical esteem, the RPO remains the Cinderella of the London orchestras, but it is not always easy to see why. In Daniele Gatti the players have arguably the most individualistic and inspiring music director in the capital, and his concerts, while none too frequent, are rarely run-of-the mill events. His gestures are economical yet enormously expressive and he has a rare gift for moulding phrases in ardently romantic style. Still firmly ensconced at Bologna’s Teatro Communale, he has chosen to maintain a balance between operatic and symphonic work. How much concert repertoire he actually has under his belt I cannot say: tonight he was giving us two of his warhorses.

Romeo and Juliet came up freshly, tightly controlled at the start where the wind have to come in ’cold’ but wearing its heart on its sleeve at nodal points. The Mahler, which he recorded with particular success a few years back, shone brighter. With Gatti, one is conscious of Mahler the great conductor of opera as one never is with, say, Riccardo Chailly. Unlike his compatriot, Gatti keeps the Fifth on the move, sometimes erratically yet always combining high drama and a passionate lyricism. Textures are relatively lean and classical. As on his commercial disc, the switchback ride can be unsettling as well as stimulating. Tonight’s ’Adagietto’ began with fashionable swiftness and a highly Italianate drive, only to relax into a more conventionally rapt treatment. Subtlety of inflexion is the conductor’s trump card. That insanely overlong ’Scherzo’ was subjected to extremes of nuance and an extended dynamic range – a noble effort to keep the ship afloat! The ’Finale’ was, for once, as light and mobile as it ought to be.

In between the two purely orchestral works we had Olga Borodina, statuesque in a bizarre-looking Soviet-era frock fringed with fur. If seemingly less involved with the texts than some of her predecessors in this music, she creates an equally imposing sonic presence, warm, stately and steady, without intrusive vibrato. With Gatti ’s attentive support, there were some magical pianissimo effects. When you could hear them.

In truth, noises-off came near to wrecking this Prom for music-lovers in the hall. There was near-constant coughing, chatter, the unwrapping of sweets, the dropping of coins, two mobile phone incidents and a police siren. A pity when it so clearly offered some of the season’s most buoyant music-making. True, the RPO’s strings remain problematic. Lacking the richness and weight of bigger names, they are sometimes drowned out – in this respect Gatti’s antiphonal placement of the violins has its downside. There was deserved acclaim from a full hall. No encores though. Instead the conductor offered a brief, off-the-cuff, end-of-term salutation to his wife! Very Italian…

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