RPO / Daniele Gatti Barbican Hall, London

CLASSICAL
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The Independent Culture
You can learn a great deal about a conductor in the moments before the first downbeat. For at least 30 seconds, Daniele Gatti stood stock- still before the Royal Philharmonic strings at the start of his Barbican Hall concert last Friday. He didn't wait for silence, he actively encouraged it. His composure became our composure, his patience our patience. And only when he was sure that the atmosphere was ripe for exploration did he raise his hands. The music of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht effectively began before a single note was sounded. Actually "sound" is too strong a word. These first notes were so pale and interesting, so remote as not to seem like music at all. Rather the sounds of silence, anticipation, disquiet. The "transfigured night" of Schoenberg's title.

Gatti has a wonderful nose for atmosphere, drama, the theatre of music. But beyond that - as befitting an Italian whose roots are, of course, in opera - there is his instinctive way with phrasing. The singer's way. Already he's encouraging from his RPO strings a freer, more flexible, more imperative manner. Be aware of the shape and purpose of the phrase, he's saying, and the sound will follow. There's still a lot of work to be done. But this performance of the Schoenberg was notable above all for the way in which the febrility of the music was conveyed "on the breath". That's breathtaking in the literal sense of the word. Those little turns of expression, the falling away of the voice and other "vocal" mannerisms. Even where the music inclined towards hyperventilation, there was shape. The dappled closing pages, tenuous violin arpeggios catching the moonlight, were still vibrating long after Gatti's hands had stopped moving.

Of Alicia de Larrocha's somewhat retiring account of Ravel's G major Piano Concerto, suffice it to say that the distinguished septuagenarian now has to watch her step for fear of losing her footing. Easily done in the snappy outer movements which streak from the roaring Twenties like there's no tomorrow. Gatti nursed her through the problems (and one conspicuous memory lapse) like a good son, but even the raucous E-flat clarinet was momentarily thrown off balance by the unease of it all. Still, at least we got to evesdrop as de Larrocha quietly reminisced her way through the central adagio assai. And for a moment or two there was no charmer like an old charmer. Nights in the gardens of ... well, Ravel was a Basque.

It was not a piece one would expect to be looking back on from the comatose opening pages of Strauss's Tod und Verklarung ("Death and Transfiguration"). Indeed, in the circumstances, the juxtaposition was perhaps even a little unfortunate. But Gatti once again effected the change of mood with great skill, deep breathing his way through an operatic account of the long introduction, solos from oboe, flute, and solo violin drifting in and out of our consciousness like tiny ariosos. The life-death struggle generated a lot of heat, the timpani's cross-rhythms slicing across the bar like convulsions. With each restatement of the transfiguration theme I was increasingly put in mind of Toscanini's famous recording. It was that exciting, that intense, the transfiguration itself a real Jacob's ladder affair, slow and exalted with trombones and horns bravely nailing those final rungs of the heavenly ascent. I do believe the Royal Philharmonic have found themselves a saviour in Daniele Gatti.

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