In this thrilling Friday night concert at the Royal Festival Hall, Daniele Gatti conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with both balletic grace and magnetic drama.
The work, composed in 1888, retains the idea of ‘Fate’ from the Fourth Symphony, again declaring it through a pithy melodic motif, returning in various guises through the work’s four movements.
And Gatti’s reading progressed fatefully, inexorably forward.
Breaks between movements were banished (to the displeasure of those in the hall burdened with a hacking cough), the symphony thus gelling into a single arching span, the motivic repetitions between movements welding the grand structure firmly into place. Gatti’s way with tempi was daring, the very fast standing shoulder to shoulder with the very slow, the music breaks elongated to breaking point.
The often brisk tempi could cause problems, with the first movement’s ascending string figurations moving too fast for comfort and the woodwind lines tending to be lost, but the overall effect was one of exhilaration. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra‘s playing was near faultless, with towering violins, craggy double basses, steely trombones and a brash, brilliant timpanist. The returns of ‘Fate’ in the Andante cantabile carried great power, and the movement’s horn solo was sensuously shaped.
Perhaps the orchestral sound was slightly too polished in the Valse, the movement’s gleeful giddiness understated (the fizzing violins and twittering flutes were an exception), but Gatti’s concentration on plushness of sound unearthed other treasures: the darkly probing low string pizzicati, the movement’s lurking harmonic unrest. Indeed, a grim sense of weary unrest permeated the entire performance, and the culminating Allegro vivace, for all its major key protestations, could not dispel the mood of gripping instability that Gatti’s conducting had so brilliantly conveyed up to that point.
The concert’s first half had proved gripping, albeit to a slightly lesser extent. Schumann’s Manfred Overture, opening the evening, displayed the band’s technical finesse but seemed rather colourless, the firm timpani climaxes an exception to a rule, and it was Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto in E minor that proved the highlight. I was troubled, in the Allegro molto appassionato, by Vadim Repin‘s ever-so-slightly smudged vibrato and his occasional intonation problems in the music’s brisker runs, but by the cadenza passage and then the Andante, his crisp, beautiful timbre and lyrical bowing were fully uncovered, moulded into the most elastic of melodic lines. The finale was not an empty vehicle for virtuosity, but an intricate tapestry of tightly-wrought lines, played with precision, but also with warmth and cheekily-articulated humour.
But it was the Tchaikovsky performance that will be remembered: a gripping, grotesque reading of a popular favourite.