A week after devoting a programme to military-related themes in the music of Haydn, Beethoven and Mahler, Daniele Gatti and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia came back focusing on nature evoked in works by the same composers.

The Coro and Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia | Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

The performance started with a nice surprise: a rare rendition of Haydn’s brief madrigal Der Sturm/ La Tempesta Hob.XXIVa:8. First performed in 1792, with an ABAB form and just a few elements of harmonic counterpoint, it is a work of noble simplicity, unmistakably Haydnesque. It can be seen without difficulty as pointing the way to not-so-distant masterpieces as Haydn’s own The Creation or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the work ending this very programme. Gatti conveyed individuality to the repeated Allegro con brio (describing the punishing storm) and Andante (the serenity of tempest’s aftermath) segments. Significantly distanced among themselves, the members of the Santa Cecilia chorus occasionally had difficulties in maintaining their unison. Nevertheless, phrases were beautifully shaped.

Daniele Gatti
© Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia | Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Like Haydn and many other artists of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, Beethoven was deeply interested in natural phenomena, seen (or not) as physical expressions of a higher purpose. As in Haydn’s case, there are multiple compositions of his explicitly evoking tempests, but none is as famous as his Pastoral. There have been numerous attempts (including empirical ones, based on computer programs) to find justifications for how Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies differ qualitatively from the even-numbered ones. The Pastoral is clearly the most evident rebuttal of such foolish beliefs. Without being exceptional in any way, this rendition easily reminded everyone how innovative – structurally, melodically, as a programmatic exercise – the Sixth Symphony must have sounded to the Viennese public attending its famous premiere. Gatti balanced well the need for an overall structure with the emphasis on significant details. The storm was less destructive than in other interpretations. Anchored by the disturbing overlapping of cellos’ quintuplets and basses’ semiquavers, the music suggested inevitability. The first movement was contemplative, but “painted” with rigour, like a Poussin landscape. The last, hymn-like movement foreshadowed the spirit of the Ninth's Ode to Joy. The interpretation of both the Allegro ma non troppo and the Allegretto could have benefited from starker dynamic contrasts. At the same time, the birdcalls in the Scene by the brook dominated the soundscape and the lively give and take between bassoon, oboe and clarinet in the Scherzo was allowed proper space to breathe.

Markus Werba, Daniele Gatti and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia | Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

The centrepiece of the concert was a selection of six songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, rendered with vigour by baritone Markus Werba. There is something limiting in choosing half a dozen songs just because they “contain depictions of nature”. Such categorisations do not make much sense. Mahler’s opuses – his symphonies as well as his song cycles – “must embrace the entire world,” as the composer himself stated. As a renowned interpreter of Papageno, Werba successfully emphasised the humour and the grotesque ingrained in these songs (Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, Lob des hohen Verstandes). He appeared more eager to convey narrative facts than darker emotions. There were very few Schubertian reminiscences in his interpretations. 

The Austrian baritone occasionally struggled with his legato and his delivery of the dialogues in Verlor'ne Müh was not varied enough. Nevertheless, as frequent collaborators, Werba and Gatti agreed well in terms of rhythms and dynamics. For a distinguished Mahlerian as the conductor is, the landscapes described in the Des Knaben Wunderhorn’s texts seemed – as did the one pictured in the Pastoral’s first movement – less a description of the world as seen, but of its transformed reflection in the composer’s mind. The conductor brought forward all those beautiful orchestral colours and transforming dissonances while encouraging individual contributions (such as clarinettist Alessandro Carbonare's). Gatti appeared to be pleased by his collaboration with an orchestra of which he was principal conductor decades ago. Returning to Rome as music director of the Teatro dell’Opera, he will probably have other opportunities to lead the Santa Cecilia again.

This performance was reviewed from the IDAGIO live video stream