Daniele Gatti’s Stillness

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Michelle DeYoung and Daniele Gatti in an all-Wagner Program with the BSO (Black Dress). Photo Stu Rosner.

Michelle DeYoung and Daniele Gatti in an all-Wagner Program with the BSO (Black Dress). Photo Stu Rosner.

Thursday, March 21, 8 pm
Friday, March 22, 1:30 pm
Saturday, March 23, 8 pm
Tuesday, March 26, 8 pm

Daniele Gatti, conductor
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano

All-Wagner Program

Dawn, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung
Overture to Tannhäuser
Kundry’s narrative (“Ich sah das Kind”) from Act II of Parsifal
Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

NB – This program will be repeated at Carnegie Hall, Friday, April 5, at 8 pm. On Wednesday, April 3, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Garrick Ohlsson will appear in a program of Hindemith, Rachmaninoff, and Bartók, and on Thursday, April 4, Gatti will conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony. Click on the links for full details and to buy tickets.

I’ve had my problems with conductor Daniele Gatti. I’ve heard him conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra five times in the last decade, and have always been disappointed. He’s regarded as a serious musician, a thinker. But his live performances rarely arouse excitement. Even his Verdi Requiem this past season seemed plodding and surprisingly unidiomatic for an Italian conductor. His tempos tend to be on the slow side, but some major bandleaders—I’m thinking especially of Otto Klemperer, or even James Levine—convey the profundity of that slowness while also creating either enormous tension or vast spaciousness. Or both.

Gatti, who looks like a young Al Pacino, cancelled his BSO debut twice (health problems) before his first appearance in 2002. For readers who may not have seen my reviews in the Boston Phoenix, here’s what I wrote about his first BSO concert, a Brahms evening:

The music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Bologna’s Teatro Communale has a … refined sense of sonic depth, of getting inner voices to emerge from the shadows… Unfortunately [in the Variations on a Theme by Haydn] instead of the variations building to a marvelous climax, they just sort of stopped….The great Fourth Symphony was odder–dramatic transitions went blurry, the rhythmic pulse occasionally limp. Passages felt stuck in a murky ditch. Deafening volume levels obliterated Gatti’s ability to maintain a rich transparency. This was a heavy performance of sporadic power and flowing energy by someone who seems to have interesting musical ideas, though a clear sense of direction—like Levine’s—might not be one of them.

About his next BSO concert (2004):

The Mozart [G-minor] was very centered–clearly structured, elegantly played, appropriately somber, though it lacked both the mystery and nervous urgency of the greatest performances…. The performance [of the Mahler Fifth] missed the revelatory understanding of Mahler’s contrasts and thematic transformations….

And so on.

The BSO signed on Gatti to do the BSO’s Verdi (hence the Requiem) and Wagner bicentennial concerts.  After his Parsifal at the Met (which I saw at a movie theater in HD), he led the BSO in an evening of Wagner excerpts from Götterdämmerung (“Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March”); the Tannhäuser Overture; Kundry’s second-act narrative from Parsifal, with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung; the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin; and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, again with DeYoung. The most exciting moment of the evening was the blazing climax to the Rhine Journey, where the BSO’s now-stellar brasses made the walls shake. But even here something was missing, some inner fire.

The Tannhäuser Overture, after intermission, was so ploddingly slow and enervated it was almost comic, reminding me of the inflated mock solemnity with which Rex Harrison conducts it in Preston Sturges’s brilliant satirical film Unfaithfully Yours. DeYoung, in a black gown, was a powerful Kundry, but a little coarse, indecisive in pitch, and missing the hypnotic inwardness of Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry under Gatti at the Met.

The shimmering violins were the stars of the Lohengrin Prelude, another Wagner piece with a memorable movie-comedy history (it’s the accompaniment to the sublime pas de deux that Charlie Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel—a.k.a. Adolf Hitler—dances in The Great Dictator with a helium-filled globe of the world).

The biggest disappointment was the Tristan excerpt. But it was also my source of illumination about Gatti’s qualities and limitations. So far, the only music I’ve heard Gatti conduct that thoroughly got to me was the third act of Parsifal in the Met’s Live in HD telecast. My feelings about the first two acts were pretty much what I’ve felt about other Gatti performances. They sounded beautiful, moved too slowly, and didn’t catch fire. The superb cast delivered what they needed to: Jonas Kaufmann’s clumsy yet heroic innocent was a thoroughly convincing embodiment of the title role. Katarina Dalayman never allowed us to forget Kundry’s torment, even when she was seducing Parsifal. Rene Pape was a powerfully spiritual Gurnemanz, even in defeat. Peter Mattei was an ideal Amfortas, suffering yet kingly, and vocally splendid. I wasn’t crazy about the modernization, but I’ve seen worse, and at least there seemed some thought behind stage director François Girard’s concept.

But nothing came together for me until the last act, which moved me deeply. Why did everything suddenly click?

The BSO Tristan excerpt helped me get to the bottom of my puzzlement. From the very first notes of the Prelude, the music is famously unresolved. What lies ahead is nearly five hours of desperate yearning for resolution, which doesn’t come until the final notes of the Liebestod. Gatti seems to conduct everything as if every note were the last note. And it’s that static quality that I’ve consistently resisted. Slow or fast, the music he elicits never seems to look forward, neither within musical phrases nor in the larger architecture of an entire piece. In Tristan, that’s a disaster. But in the last act of Parsifal, that sense of stasis seems to be exactly what Wagner is calling for. So when Gatti is plugged into what the music is about, that stillness can be profoundly moving; but when he’s not, the music seems lifeless. Beautiful, but lifeless.

Michelle DeYoung and Daniele Gatti in an all-Wagner Program with the BSO (White Dress). Photo Stu Rosner.

Michelle DeYoung and Daniele Gatti in an all-Wagner Program with the BSO (White Dress). Photo Stu Rosner.

His other problem in the Tristan was to let the orchestra play too loud, especially with its augmented brasses. So DeYoung (now in a white gown) had to bellow just to be heard, and Gatti didn’t always allow her to succeed. There was nothing personal in her performance, no illusion that she was actually singing to someone, let alone someone she loved enough to die for. Tristan could have been on his deathbed in the second balcony.

The challenge of the Liebestod is that Isolde’s monologue is both heroic and intimate. She’s transfixed, ecstatic, singing to her dead lover about her own physical disembodiment. Even at the top of her voice, over a huge orchestra, she’s really whispering. There are wonderful recordings of the Liebestod. Maria Callas, at the beginning of her career, sang it feelingly in Italian. Kirsten Flagstad was Furtwängler’s magnificent Isolde on his complete recording. Birgit Nielsen’s voice was big enough and strange enough to convey that mixture of grandeur and intimacy at the Met—she wasn’t shouting, yet I could hear her in the Family Circle. My ideal recording of the Liebestod was made in 1913 by the Swedish-American soprano Olive Fremstad, the inspiration for Willa Cather’s Thea Kronborg, the heroine of her novel The Song of the Lark. You can hear it on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CotkiBeB030). Fremstad, who sang Isolde under both Toscanini and Mahler, is one of those rare and remarkable artists whose phrasing is so supple, so nuanced, so real, she can sound as if she’s speaking while she’s singing. Her recording certainly speaks to me.

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. And who do you like as a conductor? If Gatti is not to your taste who is it?

  2. Avatar photoLloyd Schwartz April 3, 2013 @ 22:18

    Among the younger conductors visiting the BSO, the most exciting by far has been Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic. His Shostakovich Fourth Symphony had me riveted. I’ve also particularly enjoyed former assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony, and the BSO’s current assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger. Among the more established conductors, I’d love to see Sir Simon Rattle invited back to lead the BSO, And of course I’d be thrilled to have James Levine return to lead the orchestra he transformed.

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