It is the rare concert for which one can say that each half of the program would have sufficed as the sole offering of the night; when each half contains personality, wisdom, a sense of history, life-risking music-making, and attractive and important repertoire. It is the rare concert, too, that features not one, not two, but three performers who would have each, on their own, provided sufficient reward for an evening out. I am speaking of the Italian conductor Daniele Gatti, pianist Yefim Bronfman, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Daniele Gatti conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Kai Bienert / Berliner Festspiele
Daniele Gatti conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Kai Bienert / Berliner Festspiele

The program began with Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre, written in commemoration of Béla Bartók, and followed this with Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto. In memorializing the Hungarian composer, Lutosławski uses as his base a rather detached structure of, primarily, semitones and augmented fourths, the contrapuntal thickening of which reminds one of pieces such as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Yet these massing sounds give way to distinctly Lutosławskian cries of anguish more reminiscent of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The piece works through fury to arrive at incompletion and resignation: a single downward augmented fourth in the low strings, trailing off to nothing.

One of the reasons this will be a concert to remember in this festival was the union, or perhaps communion, between the Concertgebouw and Daniele Gatti. I have rarely seen an orchestra and a conductor so bound; it was a relationship of such intimacy, such complete trust, that one could see how the tiniest movement of the wrist or the smallest glance became, a split second later, a sound emerging from 50 strings or a contingent of horns. Gatti is the opposite of a conductor who blusters his way through classic works. In Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suite, he was equally adept at controlling long crescendi as he was at pulling a warm, deep sound of the cellos. You get the sense that he is really listening to everything.

This kind of musical seriousness, which is not a show of seriousness, is unfortunately rare even on the greatest stages in the world. So it was doubly gratifying to see Gatti and the Concertgebouw joined by Yefim Bronfman, a pianist of quiet intelligence. By this I mean that he does not assume that a big instrument and a big hall means that a soloist must always play out, or play with an open and direct sound, the better to reach the back row. Instead, sometimes his sound draws you in; his approach to the keyboard is always moderated with a thoughtfulness about the phrase and where it is going. He came out for an encore, a Chopin étude, which so scintillated in its color and had such a rich padding of tone that its relatively moderate pace seemed like the only reasonable one.

Gatti, too, came out for an encore. And here is what distinguished this concert, for me, from the many other excellent nights so far in Berlin. When he took the podium again, he did not announce the next number, but instead turned, slowly and with a sense of great weight, to face the cellos and basses. Somehow this man makes us feel, in his gaze and in the very way he stands, the importance of this music as well as its ephemerality, and so the importance of being here together on this night, in this phrase, of being sure to say everything that must be said – for if not now, then never. The Act III Prelude of Meistersinger gave each section of the Concertgebouw a final chance to show off their legendary sound; then, to cries of “Bravo, Gatti!”, the night was over.

*****