Concertgebouw/Gatti review – superlative orchestra thrill and challenge

Barbican, London
Under their new chief conductor Daniele Gatti, the orchestra demonstrated why the RCO remains one of the world’s truly recognisable ensembles

While the UK tugs at the European laces, others try to tie them more snugly. Under its new Italian chief conductor Daniele Gatti, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is on a two-year project of mini-residencies, working with youth orchestras in each of the EU’s 28 member states. And so, following a more standard RCO programme the night before, its Saturday afternoon concert began with half the seats on stage empty, waiting to be filled for the first work by 36 members of the National Youth Orchestra. In an introductory speech interrupted by loud audience applause whenever she said the word “Europe”, NYO chief executive Sarah Alexander stressed the importance to the NYO players of feeling close to European excellence. Bittersweet words for these teenagers, many of them headed for orchestral careers, who found in June that their potential working world may have got smaller.

Still, the sweetness of performing with the orchestra many consider the world’s best will surely have blown the bitterness away, for now. The work they collaborated on was Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger – which, in a similar handing-on of expertise, NYO players were due to perform alongside east London school musicians the following day.

Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam.
Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Photograph: Mark Allan

Even with the addition of the NYO players, the opening bars demonstrated immediately why the RCO remains one of the world’s truly recognisable orchestras. Here was the velvety sound honed in the plush acoustic of its home venue: rich, thickly-woven and homogenous. If most other orchestras attempted it, the result would be stodgy and leaden. So how is it achieved? The mellowness of the brass tone helps, but the strings are at its heart, not so much for perfection of ensemble – there was the odd smudge in exposed passages – as for the absolute precision of the blend, allied to unanimity of intent in every phrase.

Such is the orchestra Gatti has inherited from Mariss Jansons – and this concert showed every sign that he will continue to push it forwards. The Meistersinger Prelude combined a lightness of touch in nimbler passages with a sense of the music converging slowly and steadily on its climaxes. A control of epic span was even more crucial to the knitted-together extracts from Götterdämmerung that followed – Dawn, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March – which eschewed fleeting excitement in favour of a slow burn.

The long first movement of Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No 10 needed an intensity that was even more controlled, and this performance provided it, juxtaposing long, searching melodies with an underlying onward drive that was slow, yet almost dance-like. At the end, there was a sense of cataclysm being held at bay – for now. Finally, the ear-splitting opulence of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces was testament to the fact that in 1915, this vein of music was about to burst.

This was a challenging and thoughtful programme that Gatti, conducting entirely from memory, obviously knew inside out, and to which this superlative orchestra is ideally suited.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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