As he walked down the famous steps of the Concertgebouw last evening, engaged to the prince but as yet unmarried, Daniele Gatti was the subject of curiosity parallel to the young, dark haired woman who will now one day be queen. The engagement was swift and secure, due, for sure, to the assurance weaned from years of dating. Despite the shortened length of modern day marriages, Gatti is clearly here to stay and has already successfully moved into Amsterdam’s palace.

Daniele Gatti © CAMI
Daniele Gatti
© CAMI

A mere five months after Mariss Jansons declared his departure, Gatti, already a regular, was named the Royal Concertgebouw’s next music director, only the seventh in the orchestra’s 121-year history. No doubt Willem Mengelberg’s 50-year directorship will forever remain the record that cannot be matched; even at half that span of time, Bernard Haitink’s 25-year reign is itself a difficult act to follow. One can only hope that Gatti’s residence proves both lengthy and noteworthy enough to safely guide this venerable institution far into a next generation. That next generation needs new, attentive and alert royalty to capture its imagination and heart if this great orchestra bargains on a vibrant future.

The welcome was extremely warm from both public and players: many string bows ‘applauded’ Gatti’s arrival, quite an unusual gesture in northern Europe. For this first paparazzi moment, Gatti extended the Mahler tradition that is a given in this particular palace. Of course, the program was set before his ‘engagement’. It was telling nevertheless: Gatti dared to wear this historic tiara, an icon deeply coated in respect to all of those who have previously worn it at equally historic occasions. As recently as 2006, Maestro Jansons released a RCO live disc with Mahler's Sixth (compiled from concerts in the 2005-2006 season), prompting rave reviews.

From the very first measure of the “Tragic” Symphony no. 6, Gatti’s energy and authority were majestic, fit for a king rather than a prince-regent. Organic, earthy rhythms and bold, nearly aggressive tempi afforded the brass and woodwinds room to add colour vividly in extreme volumes and dynamics.

Rich, sensuous strings contrasted these wonderful, sharp accents. Gatti clearly inspired the instrumentalists to a new step forward in a piece they already know like the backs of their hands. And again, in the second movement, the tempi were really quite remarkable, an extra excitement was added to this well-known and beloved work, a breathtaking match for the depth of pathos that performance tradition has built at the hallowed Mahlerian walls of the Royal Concertgebouw. All possible playfulness was squeezed out of the colourful, program references in the work; every syncopation was exactly placed and played to the max. Cow bells truly surprised new listeners, clanging away without reserve.

In the third movement however, the interpretation failed to win over the heart. It was certainly beautiful, yet it was merely lovely. It did not convey the painful, tearing vulnerability that the notes prescribe. In this performance there was more melancholy than true tragedy. It was again wonderful to hear the relatively new generation of RCO brass, woodwinds and percussion have their evening, however it was the lesser of the evening’s moments, at times even on the slightest verge of standing still.

Happily Gatti’s authority returned in earnest in the final movement. He is clearly unperturbed by raw emotion and cunningly coaxes it from his musicians with an enormous range of gestures, body movement and grimaces. Gatti is elegant and has an old-school style as a conductor, a treat to watch and perfectly trained both in mind and body. Yet at a moment’s notice he transforms into a true representative of the younger guard, those who dare to pull and poke to bring to the fore all those musical deals made during rehearsal.

Working without a score, his eyes flew from section to section with uncanny accuracy throughout the 85-minute symphony; more than royal, it was an Olympian achievement. Personal relationships were constantly in clear view. It is easy to imagine that this is a dream prince at this point in the history of the mythic maestro: someone who balances his abundant authority with a dashing personality and Italian charm.

“This is the stuff of which fairy tales are made,” a former Archbishop of Canterbury once decreed about a (later doomed) royal match. The lesson since learned: it has to be love to stand the scrutiny. As Daniele Gatti sought to wrap his arms around some of the Concertgebouw’s musicians while taking their bows together last evening, first impressions here are that this royal union is a true love affair.