To avoid banality, uncommon renderings of old masterpieces effectively generate up-to-date perspectives from the devoted observer. With that being said, Maestro Daniele Gatti’s interpretation of Johannes Brahms is certainly one of the most distinctive of this generation. As hard as it is to believe such a frequently performed set of symphonies could reclaim novelty, the Vienna Philharmonic, under the direction of Maestro Daniele Gatti, disassembled the vast mechanics of Brahms’ Second and Fourth to present a refurbished model for the symphonies.

Daniele Gatti © CAMI
Daniele Gatti
© CAMI

Maestro Gatti’s perceivable grasp on the arching construction of each symphony and its relation to sonata form made the performance meaningful. The initial sounds of each first movement heightened to a masterfully restrained forte in order to aggrandize the climax later on in the movement. This restraint vibrated throughout the remainder of each symphony as their respective finales grew to heights of unimaginable grandeur. Never has the form been so boldly outlined for the listener to clearly hear Brahms’ comprehensive architecture than under Maestro Gatti's hands.

Brahms composed his Second Symphony in traditional Viennese fashion: on a lengthy, summertime vacation in the rustic Austrian countryside. Maestro Gatti initiated the first movement with much non troppo, unraveling the developing themes slowly without accruing tension, and the horn players of the Vienna Philharmonic sang the second half of the first theme in perfect harmony. The Viennese horn, in contrast to the horn played everywhere else in the world, lends perfectly to the ability for fine-tuned legato playing. With a narrower bore, the instrument’s timbre is mellower and closer to that of the natural horn. In addition to the Viennese horn, the sound of the Viennese oboe is not often heard in the United States either; it was particularly interesting to hear the theme of the third movement played on this rare instrument. The fourth movement lacked a bit of the energetico requested by Brahms because Maestro Gatti took occasional moments of completely unnecessary tempo changes; for instance, he deflated the movement twice during climactic syncopations (specifically in measures 138 and 341). But overall, his omniscient blueprint allotted for a triumphant conclusion.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, composed nearly ten years after the Second, contains a world apart from the Second; Brahms’ harmonies want to creep closer to Richard Wagner, but the composer looks to Johann Sebastian Bach for inspiration as he tries everything to hold true to “German” form. Maestro Gatti’s tempo for the beginning of the Fourth Symphony, again at the same level of Allegro non troppo as the Second, could not have been more appropriate this time. The descending thirds of the violins sang through a pleasant weightiness. The most highly discussed movement, if any part of any Brahms symphony could be less “highly discussed”, is undoubtedly the fourth because of its use of the passacaglia bass. A variated theme circulates through several variations of the orchestra, and even in the first variation, the sounds of future Viennese composers like Mahler and Schoenberg can be imagined. The twelfth variation includes a grand flute solo that is sure to give any conservatory student nightmares, but flautist Karl-Heinz Schütz played this solo magnificently, providing a clear interpretation of what Brahms intended with a round sound that projected well even into the lowest register.

The audience was not quick to let the orchestra leave. The Vienna Philharmonic encored with the Brahms’ arch-nemesis, Richard Wagner, in an introspective Prelude to the Third Act of Die Meistersinger. After a final bow, the string players shook hands with their respective stand partners in a display of genuine camaraderie and departed. For a composer considered to be a perfectionist, it’s somewhat ironic to think Brahms’ symphonies will never be played in only one perfect way.