Certified Brahms From Vienna In Carnegie Concerts

Danielle Gatti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic and Westminster Symphonic Choir in Brahms' German Requiem.  (Photos by Jennifer Taylor)
Daniele Gatti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic and Westminster Symphonic Choir in Brahms’ ‘German Requiem.’
(Photos by Jennifer Taylor)
By Ken Smith

NEW YORK — Playing the world premiere of any work instills a certain gravitas. Think of the century or so of bragging rights associated with the New York Philharmonic and Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, or the Mariinsky Theatre and pretty much anything by Tchaikovsky. Even when no one in the orchestra’s current roster can reasonably claim direct lineage to the event, a certain moral authority — and often a qualitative stylistic relationship as well — remains from being connected to that moment of creation.

Gatti led the Vienna Philharmonic in three Brahms concerts.
Gatti led the Vienna Philharmonic in Brahms concerts at Carnegie.

When it comes to Brahms, one would be hard pressed to find a higher authority than the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which premiered the composer’s second and third symphonies in 1877 and 1883, respectively. In today’s Brahms-saturated climate, perhaps only the Vienna could make a weekend cycle of Brahms’ symphonies (along with a Sunday-afternoon performance of his German Requiem) not just a hot ticket but something of a secular pilgrimage.

At Carnegie Hall from Feb. 27 to March 1, the main variable in the Vienna’s Brahms cycle was the Italian conductor Daniele Gatti, who in 2016 becomes chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, an organization that — mixed experience with the composer himself notwithstanding — carries a formidable Brahms tradition of its own. The relationship between any orchestra and the conductor is rarely clear-cut. Who is responsible for what, exactly? But in this case the results seemed clear enough. In short, Gatti provided the beats, the orchestra everything else in between.

Beneath that absurdly simplistic description lay a wealth of qualifiers. In a world of increasingly homogeneous music-making, the Vienna sound remains distinct — not merely for its plummy sonorities, but also for its melodic lilt, a particular way of turning beats written equally on the page into cogent and distinguishing phrases.

Right from the Second Symphony’s opening Allegro non troppo, phrasing at the Feb. 28 performance conveyed a distinctly Viennese accent. So, too, was the orchestra’s trademark sound securely in place. The playing, though, opened at such a quiet volume that the superb sonic balance was clearly a result from the podium.

Between Gatti and the assembled forces, a difference of opinion over where the beat fell.
Between Gatti and the assembled forces, a difference of opinion over where the beat fell.

Yet Gatti’s main contribution was a pacing deliberate enough to honor, as much as possible, every marking on the page (I was following the score through most of the evening). The effect was magical, at least through the first movement. Once the orchestra was into the Adagio, cracks began to show. The rhythmic precision in the strings began vying for supremacy with an increasingly freer approach in the winds and brass. Harmonies were not uniformly in tune. If the performance was aiming for a boisterous peasant sound, it ran counter to Gatti’s otherwise methodical approach.

Paradoxically, considering the Vienna’s history with the Second Symphony, it was the Fourth that better showed the relationship between conductor and orchestra. Whether the cycle’s chronological reordering was meant to showcase one Vienna Philharmonic “premiere” per evening, or rather to highlight contrasts between the works themselves, the Fourth Symphony held together in all the ways the Second did not.

While the players let the melodic line unfurl, Gatti concerned himself with the details that provided not just the frame but the very connective tissue in Brahms’ rhetorical craft. The contrast between the Fourth’s melancholic second movement and the boisterous scherzo that followed fully set the stage for the work’s finale, a passacaglia of majestic proportions whose success on this occasion stemmed from an equal meeting of stately orchestral playing and solid precision on the podium.

Gatti with baritone Christian Gerhaher and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.
Gatti with Christian Gerhaher and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.

The same proportion between musical magic and misfires continued the next day with the German Requiem. Through much of the performance, the young singers of the Westminster Symphonic Choir thoroughly matched the restrained dynamics of the orchestral playing. Choruses who can maintain emotional intensity at such a low decibel level are few and far between, and indeed the level of sonic transparency in the choral singing was comparable to Gatti’s demands on the orchestra. It was in the music’s broader moments, when it opens to the fullest, that the choir fell short of the orchestra’s emotional heft.

The vocal soloists proved remarkably compatible with both the Requiem and the orchestra. The tone color of Christian Gerhaher’s velvet-like baritone seemed much of a piece with the Vienna’s orchestral sonorities. Soprano Diana Damrau’s phrasing was impeccably matched with the orchestra musically and she was convincing verbally.

The chorus, however, fell short at times on both counts. Whereas the Vienna’s lapses in precision the previous evening were mostly rectified, a fresh difference of opinion emerged over precisely where Gatti’s beat fell, with the chorus frequently anticipating the orchestra. There were also lapses in enunciation. American choral pronunciation is by nature long on vowels and short on consonants, particularly s’s and z’s. While this prevents unseemly hisses, in the German Requiem – with phrases like “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) – it was often unclear exactly what language was being sung.

Ken Smith is the Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times and a writer for Gramophone magazine. He divides his time between New York and Hong Kong.

author avatar
Ken Smith
Critic and author Ken Smith has covered arts and culture on six continents for a wide array of print, broadcast and internet media. Since 2002 he has written about the classical musical world in Asia, primarily for the Financial Times and Opera magazine of London. Winner of the 2020 SOPA Award for arts and culture reporting and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for distinguished music writing, he is the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!...The Making of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” Opera. He has served as a consultant to many cross-cultural projects, including Bright Sheng’s opera Dream of the Red Chamber, David Henry Hwang’s bilingual Broadway comedy Chinglish and Kung Fu, a musical based on the life of Bruce Lee for New York’s Signature Theatre.