Musical giants

Daniele Gatti conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Daniele Gatti conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

REVIEW / CONCERT

ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA

Daniele Gatti, conductor

Esplanade Concert Hall

Monday

What makes a truly great orchestra?

Back in 2008, the influential Gramophone magazine asked its critics to nominate the world's greatest orchestra. They chose the Royal Concertgebouw.

Eyebrows were raised by those who felt that orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, London and Chicago might be better. But nobody disputed that this Amsterdam-based ensemble fully deserved its place among the top half-dozen symphony orchestras of the world.

For the first time, Singapore audiences had the opportunity to experience the Royal Concertgebouw at first hand and hear for themselves what makes it one of the - if not the - best in the world.

That they were in the presence of a truly great orchestra was obvious from the start.

As a whispering flute wafted in on a floating cushion of the most velvety string tone, concertgoers were cast into a shimmering, impressionistic soundscape.

Barely perceptible changes of tone colour, delicate musical textures and the subtlest of dynamic shading made this performance of Debussy's popular Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun absolutely exquisite.

But that was nothing compared to what came next.

Seeming like it had been there all along and concertgoers just had not noticed it - Daniele Gatti conjured up the most delicate violin tone to set in motion La Mer, Debussy's evocation of the sea.

There might have been an ocean of players on stage, but Gatti moulded the ebbing and flowing climaxes with infinite subtlety. Orchestral textures were as light as gossamer thread, with every instrument clearly and unforcedly present in a kaleidoscope of tantalising colours.

In total contrast, the second half was given over to Bruckner's massive, and, in the last movement rambling, Fourth Symphony.

A different composer, a different sound-world and a very different musical idiom.

Yet the Amsterdam orchestra was as convincing and compelling here as in the Debussy. Whether in the rustic Landler dance of the second movement or Bruckner's characteristic peasant clog dance of the third, the playing was shot through with the essence of the composer.

This was a performance which vividly demonstrated what makes the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra so special and unique.

You get the impression that every player is an intense, intellectual giant of a musician.

They interpret the music from the inside, resulting in an extraordinarily unified performance in which it is not just the beginnings and the endings, the louds and the softs, the smooth bits and the jagged outbursts which are completely together, but something altogether deeper and more fundamental.

They collectively think through the music, leaving Gatti simply to shape it into a coherent whole. Such was his faith in them that he often simply stood by and let them play unconducted. This is what makes a truly great orchestra.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'Musical giants'. Print Edition | Subscribe