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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Concert Review: There Are Two Paths You Can Go By

Daniele Gatti climbs Wagner and Bruckner's stairways to heaven.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Daniele Gatti at the helm of his inaugural 2017 concert as music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Photo by Mladen Pikilic for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The final utterance of a major composer is often an insight into their innermost thoughts. In the case of Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner, (two composers who knew each other in life) those utterances, performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, were very different indeed. Wagner was a man of the theater turned to the mystic epic of Parsifal and the story of the Holy Grail and the Kingdom of Montsalvat. Bruckner, who revered Wagner, found his Grail in the structured form of the symphony, offering a Ninth that he would not live to finish.

The concert, which was the first Carnegie Hall Corporation-sponsored music event of this calendar year, featured the Concertgebouw under the baton of its new boss, conductor Daniele Gatti. Mr. Gatti, who drew acclaim here five years ago for his leading of Wagner's Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, started the concert with two excerpts from that opera: the Prelude to Act III and the Good Friday Spell, an intermezzo-like passage that bridges the two halves of that same act.

This Prelude sounds frozen in indecision, especially following the apocalyptic ending of the second act. It is a shifting web of cello chords and low winds that hint at some great sadness, and its simultaneous movement and stasis reflects Wagner's strategy of stripping the very element of time from his final opera. By choosing a very slow tempo, Mr. Gatti brought out details in the score that are not normally heard, a descending four-note figure for the cellos and a slow, rising melody in the winds that illustrate the central problem of this act: that something is rotten in the Kingdom of Montsalvat and the titular Parsifal has arrived to set things right.

The conductor shifted into the Good Friday Music without stopping, forging a continuous flow into this glowing, inspiring passage. Woodwinds took the place of critical vocal lines and at one point, the orchestra's brass section roared to life, showing the promise of salvation and redemption that come in the final pages of this extraordinary opera. The work shifted to darkness again, a promise of the funeral march that follows and a tantalizing tease of how powerful a Gatti-conducted Parsifal can be when heard in the opera house.

Bruckner died while working on what would have been the fourth and final movement of his Ninth Symphony, a huge and ambitious work dedicated simply "to the Dear Lord." There is a completed version available, reconstructed from the composer's manuscripts. However, Mr. Gatti wisely opted for the traditional three-movement torso, a sprawling first movement, a pounding Scherzo and an Adagio which plunges the depths of spiritual despair but finds hope and redemption in its extraordinary final pages.

As with the Wagner excerpts, tempos were glacial, although the effect of the first entry of the expanded brass section sounded like a mountain falling on one's head in slow motion. The music strode forward at a leisurely pace, as if a giant were out for a stroll in the mountains. Each climax built on what came before, until the strides were not across mountains and meadows but between stars and planets. This cosmic interpretation culminated in a massive Tutti
from the brass section.
The Scherzo is brutal and apocalyptic, a plucked, dripping figure in the strings giving way to an insistent, obstinate, pounding rhythm that Stravinsky would have loved. The insistent hammering was the sound of the composer, late in life having  own dark night of the soul, as fear and doubt clashed with Bruckner's rock-solid Catholic faith. Mr. Gatti and his forces offered some relief in the sprightly trio music, but the pounding theme returned in force, battering at the senses and opening doorways to despair.

The closure of those dark passages in is the Adagio, which, in the absence of a complete last movement may be regarded as Bruckner's final musical mystery. Indeed, this very ambitious movement ends in a surprisingly ordinary fashion, a tolling figure in the strings and wind that promise the dawning of a new day and the ringing of church bells as if from a distant Montsalvat. For a symphony whose missing finale makes one think of uncertainty, this is a profound statement of faith and meaning at last.

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