fri 25/07/2014

Orchestre National de France, Gatti, Royal Albert Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Orchestre National de France, Gatti, Royal Albert Hall

A hit-and-miss Prom for Gatti's French band

Daniele Gatti: An evening he'll not forget
Daniele Gatti: An evening he'll not forgetChris Christodoulou

It was one of those moments that every conductor (and orchestra) dreads: “The Procession of the Sage” from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is in rip-roaring full cry, percussion grinding and scratching, high trumpet screeching – but Daniele Gatti, it would seem, loses a bar somewhere and gives his Orchestre National de France a premature cut-off, leaving the entire brass section between a rock and a hard place. Stop or play on? An ignominious collapse ensues – as big a blunder as I’ve heard in any professional concert in years. Who says The Rite of Spring no longer has the capacity to shock?

Unfair, perhaps, to start a review with the low-point of the evening, particularly as I have such enormous respect for Gatti, but this was a problematic Prom for him in so many respects. Since I’ve begun with the Rite, let’s just say that this was a performance to remind us that Stravinsky’s seminal score is not as easy as it is made to sound these days. France’s oldest established orchestra really had its work cut out and quite apart from the big gaff towards the end of part one, I, for one, never felt totally secure. Would the “Dance of the Earth” and the “Sacrificial Dance” make it to the double-bar line? It was edge-of-seat stuff alright, the final bars of both parts sounding decidedly precarious.

And Gatti had begun so interestingly, launching into the accented chords of the “Auguries of Spring” with disarmingly springy lightness (it isn’t marked, as it is so often played, triple-forte) – enough to suggest that this might prove to be an especially balletic reading of the score. Well, it was to a point – the point at which the dancers started stepping on each others' toes. Yes, of course, it had exciting moments – when does it not? – but actually it just wasn’t good enough.

The concert had begun in strange and beautiful symmetry to the Rite’s opening bassoon solo with the languorous flute solo of that other Ballets Russes cause cèlébre, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. An easy suppleness, a tantalising restraint, marked out Gatti’s reading and the orchestra, in marked contrast to the Rite, were so relaxed they were almost horizontal.

Gatti was taking his time, too – time-and-a-half in Debussy’s La mer. Opening with a gorgeously half-lit sonority and throbbing undertow, the distinctive thing about this performance was clarity without over-accentuation. The French know (and so does Gatti, it seems) how to work the tempo-rubato, how to soften the contours and mix the colours, how to keep the brush strokes discreet so that passages like that for divisi cellos in the first sketch don’t come across as too "literal". But it needed more variety of pace and despite many luminous passages – not least that in violin harmonics and flute, the still moment just prior to the grand peroration – it was apt to over-luxuriate. And I’m surprised that Gatti, a man of good taste, chose to include those spurious trumpet fanfares to the expectant string tremolandi in the closing pages.

Incidentally, the Albert Hall was jam-packed to the rafters, which just goes to show that in a record-breaking season you can shut down the tube network but you won’t keep the Proms audience away.

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Comments

Not spurious, the trumpets, but cut out by Debussy (half-heartedly) in a 1909 revision. Quite a few conductors have put them back, so Gatti is in reasonable company. Incidentally, any disasters on the platform were matched by the BBC presentation, which had the crashing percussion at the Paris premiere matched by "Nijinsky dancing provocatively on the stage" (he choreographed, of course, but wasn't dancing).
Just listened to the Rite on iplayer - that moment is indeed awkward! It does rather trail off in an embarrassed way. I have to say though that it doesn’t quite trump a moment from the LSO at last year’s Proms (I think) in Shostakovich 8: right at the end of the first movement when the trumpets recapitulate the first theme, someone in the trumpet section came in at double speed. Half followed him and half followed Gergiev and until the horns came to the rescue a few bars later it sounded like a brass meltdown.

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