On a grey day in London, Daniele Gatti and the Philharmonia took the audience on a journey to blooming spring days in Austria and bustling Italian vistas. While Mendelssohn’s “blue sky in A major” wasn’t all sunny, the London orchestra and Italian conductor masterfully captured Brahms’ spirit in what he thought was his most melancholic and saddest work written so far. It was a celebration of the Austrian countryside that, admittedly, left me feeling nostalgic.

Daniele Gatti © Marco Borggreve
Daniele Gatti
© Marco Borggreve

Mendelssohn himself conducted the first performance of his Fourth Symphony in London in 1833. Commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, Mendelssohn used his journey to Italy, from which he had just recently returned, as inspiration. Right from the beginning he pulls out all the stops and lets his enthusiasm for Italy loose. It is a swirl of life and cheerfulness and, after a ponderous start, Gatti and the Philharmonia were able to capture the Mediterranean spirit. Repetitive woodwinds gave the pulse of a buzzing day in Rome, while the strings painted colourful Tuscan landscapes. In the grave Andante con moto Mendelssohn may recall a religious procession of pilgrims he witnessed in Naples or his time in Venice, with its morbid, decaying palaces. Double basses and cellos formed monotonous footsteps, but too often the procession seemed to stop. The orchestra was not always responsive to Gatti's little movements which also continued during the minuet. Although horn and breezy woodwinds lifted the spirits, it wasn’t until the fourth movement that Gatti showed his full Italian temperament that then rubbed off on the orchestra. Light-footed violins joined the superbly playing wind principals in this Roman saltarello and Neapolitan tarantella. With his podium dancing, Gatti spurred the Philharmonia to a fizzy finale of a fading day in Italy.

You only had to hear the first few bars of the horn melody and you knew our journey had taken us to Austria. Johannes Brahms found inspiration for his Second Symphony in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a small town in Carinthia, so peaceful that Brahms described it as a “maiden ground. The melodies flow so freely that one must be careful not to trample on them.” Gatti, who conducted without a score, gave the musicians plenty of room to draw a springlike landscape in the Allegro non troppo. If you closed your eyes, like Gatti, you could almost see those melodies floating in the hall. Gradually, the low strings and timpani blended into the warm orchestral sound and clouded the – for Brahms – unusually joyful mood, with thunderstorm-announcing trombones. Lush strings and meditative winds shaped a truly melancholic second movement. After the Adagio's brooding themes, principal clarinet, Mark van de Wiel, and oboe, Tom Blomfield, brought us back into the gentle setting of the symphony's beginning that reappears in the Allegretto grazioso. It is a light and contrasting movement and the Philharmonia colourfully shed light on its differents moods. Excitement returned in the finale, with bustling strings and slowing winds trying to interrupt the joyful outbursts. With their full orchestral sound and energy, the Philharmonia recapitulated the different themes before Gatti brought this Austrian summer retreat to a triumphant end.