I heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on their home turf in Amsterdam in June so it was a real treat to catch them on their first Proms outing since 2009, only a few weeks later – this time with their chief conductor, Daniel Gatti – and the choice of programme, definitely not mainstream, was interesting too. Wolfgang Rihm, born 1952, and Anton Bruckner are not obvious bedfellows but in combination they provided quite a showcase for this fine orchestra.
Like most people in the hall, I was hearing Rihm’s In-Schrift (loosely translated as Inscription), premiered in 1995, for the first time. It requires a chamber size orchestra without upper strings but includes six percussionists and six trombones, two of them bass trombones. The starring role belongs to the percussionists who at one point lead a magnificent quasi-cadenza on five side drums. Mesmerised by the sheer excitement of it, I was also glad that I didn’t have to count for the entries in such an episodic work full of tempo changes. I was almost relieved to see Gatti counting the bars with his fingers for the percussionists as they reached the turning point in their big moment. There’s a lot of finely nuanced dialogue in this piece as it works through its many moods and tensions. The principal flute, who led the orchestra for this piece, for example, has a lot of interplay with trombones, woodblocks and tubular bells (5 sets). If you want drama in music, there was no shortage of it here.
After an interval to digest the impact of the Rihm, we were back to a more conventionally configured full orchestra, although Gatti splits his violins and puts his double basses behind the firsts. Bruckner’s unfinished ninth symphony in D minor (homage to Beethoven, he said) is not one of his best known works. Written at the very end of his life, it feels like an autobiographical retrospective which works well in three movements – two slow ones sandwiching a contrasting scherzo and trio. Gatti, who conducted this without a score, coaxed a sound from the orchestra which managed to be both crisp (those repeated chopping down bows in the middle movement) and velvety with a pleasingly warm brass sound, suitably plangent in the first movement and like melted chocolate in the adagio. Clearly a charismatic musician, Gatti sometimes beats time clearly and at others reduces his hand movement to a minimalist, understated twitch. He is, presumably, communicating with his eyes which, of course, the audience can’t see. At 65 minutes this is a very long, concentrated work and although Gatti ensured that it held the attention and was pretty moving, it might have been better to have cut some of the repeats, especially the one at the opening of the third movement.