Review: Royal Concertgebouw Lives Up To Its Reputation as One of the World’s Finest In Carnegie Hall Residency
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, January 22, 2018
Carnegie Hall hosts a great variety of the world’s finest orchestras, and witnessing each ensemble relish the Hall’s flattering acoustics is a rewarding adventure for the curious listener. The most recent orchestra to grace Carnegie’s stage, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, is a strong candidate for the finest that I have heard all year.
In two substantial programs, the Royal Concertgebouw, under the baton of chief conductor Daniele Gatti, lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s finest symphonies. Perhaps because their own hall in Amsterdam is such a finely tuned acoustic space itself, this ensemble has an innate understanding of how musical sound is conveyed in a space. They know how to treat the hall’s acoustics as an extension of their instruments.
Individually, as well as in finely honed section playing, they have a noble, human timbre. Their disciplined and sophisticated approach to intonation creates a resonant sound exploited to the maximum in some of the weighty repertoire played on these chilly New York evenings.
On the podium, Gatti is the very embodiment of gravitas — economic, grounded, and poised — yet conveying tension and emotional suspense. In Wagner’s dark Prelude to Act 3 of Parsifal, played here with that opera’s glorious Good Friday Spell, Gatti shapes the grand structure of this intricate, long-lined, counterpoint-rich music with the sure eye of a master sculptor.
The Royal Concertgebouw soars into the music’s many wrenching climaxes, demonstrating what makes Wagner’s music so extraordinary: how the music’s arrival points land in the meat of the orchestra, and how he harnessed the possibilities of sound and space to create art of great tension and release.
Frankly, I’ve diligently avoided Wagner as a listener (owing to a fondness for brevity), but this performance was an epiphany, and I find myself hungry for more.
The possibilities of time and space, and acoustics, were on full display in the so-called “Bruckner unison” of the hard-earned (there’s a long buildup) grandiose statement of the first theme of late Romantic composer Anton Bruckner’s ninth symphony. As epic as Game of Thrones, and encompassing as much of the human experience, Bruckner’s hour-long symphony is maximalist in its imposing vision and the completeness with which he develops each musical idea. And yet, he also discovers what can only be described as minimalism, which he employs in swaths to create churning rivers of sound.
The orchestra’s brass section, with especially daring demands made upon the horn section, play the lead roles in this work. The brass blended imperceptibly with the strings in the swooning second theme. Gatti applies silence generously in the many “breaths” that Bruckner builds into his long movements as punctuation points.
I wonder if John Williams might have taken inspiration for his evil Sith-themed music in the Star Wars film scores from the sinister brass chords in the movement’s coda, which reeks of the triumph of the dark side of the Force. In the contrasting second movement, a hefty scherzo, minimalism again rears its head in shocking, stabbing unisons, which the orchestra dispatches repeatedly in a feat of Herculean strength. Also notable is Gatti’s skill in maintaining the relentless, peerless, driving tempo (never rushing).
In the obscure third movement, a ponderous adagio, the string section demonstrated exceptional interpretive skills, exhibiting the patience and control required to execute this music with the right pacing. The Concertgebouw’s fearless brass section attacks the crashing dissonances with a Zeus-like confidence. The symphony, and the first evening’s concert, ends with some exquisite playing by the horn section, culminating with an unbelievably long, sweet chord. The piece is famous for being unfinished. Mercifully, they did not play a substitute last movement, as the piece seems beyond complete.
The following evening, Carnegie’s current Perspectives artist, Janine Jansen played the Bruch first violin concerto. At first glance, it’s an odd choice, more the sort of piece played by students, a beginner’s concerto of sorts, rather than the towering kind of piece a seasoned virtuoso would be expected to choose on this occasion. But, Jansen proved any prejudice against the Bruch G minor ill-founded. In her hands (and vibrant bow arm), this concerto is a quintessential Romantic artwork, with great musical thrust, and all of the inner turmoil of Goethe.
Jansen is a violinist whose technique transcends the instrument, a vessel through which can flow an unlimited palette of expression. She imbued the Bruch with rhythmic sweep and phrasing that felt free, yet with forceful momentum. Her tone is warm and plush, always in the center of the pitch, swelling into the next phrase, carrying the energy onward. She has a way of vibrating into the top of a phrase, and her highest passages were glowing and sweet, as in the lyrical second theme of the first movement.
Playing of this caliber elevates Bruch’s gypsy-flavored fiddle showpiece, moving between the long, rhapsodic ariosos to the impetuous outbursts and showy runs, unifying all into a coherent whole. Her high figurations in the second movement glow with perfection, round and resonant.
Gatti accompanies supportively, and the orchestra is on the same page as Jansen. Gatti and the orchestra set up the arrival of the last movement perfectly, a moment of suspense until Jansen bursts out in a heroic opening theme that overflows with joyous, electric energy. The audience on Thursday leapt to their feet, shouts of “Brava!” fully appreciating the skill on display.
The Royal Concertgebouw completed their visit to “New” Amsterdam with Mahler’s under-appreciated first symphony in D major. If every Mahler symphony is a universe, this is one where the world is new, and life under the sun is just springing up. The first movement is as pastoral as Beethoven’s Sixth, resplendent with birdsong in the woodwinds, and its fresh, original harmonies bring to mind the blossoming of Mother Nature. Gatti led a crisp and rhythmically tight reading, every accelerando (tricky with the busy, multi-layered texture) impressively coordinated.
This is an orchestra that really listens to each other, evidenced especially in the dazzling second movement, a Ländler bristling with volcanic earthiness that builds via piercing tubas and dazzling horns to glimmering trumpet trills. If Mahler’s First sounds like a creation-of-the-world story, the third movement’s melancholy (minor keyed) “Frère Jacques” in the guise of a funeral march, might represent the arrival of humans, as Mahler draws back the curtain and reveals a darker, sadder truth. Mahler pushes the orchestra to its limits and the great Dutch orchestra appears unfazed. They have an engaged demeanor, but don’t seem overly self-impressed; just another day at the office.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on January 17-18, 2018. Daniele Gatti, Chief Conductor; Janine Jansen, violin.
Wednesday, January 17:
WAGNER Prelude to Act III and Good Friday Spell from Parsifal
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9
Thursday, January 18:
BRUCH Violin Concerto No. 1
MAHLER Symphony No. 1
FALLA “Nana” from Suite populaire espagnole
Cover: Daniele Gate conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; photo: Richard Termine.