La Scala, Milan; October 16, 2017–These are exciting times for the Filarmonica della Scala. Founded by Claudio Abbado to provide La Scala’s regular players with an opportunity to play symphonic repertoire, the orchestra has been getting better and better since Riccardo Chailly became music director two years ago. A recently-concluded tour over the summer, which included performances at the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival, seems to have taken playing up a notch. Indeed, I’ve never heard the orchestra on better form than in this concert of Mahler 2 conducted by Daniele Gatti. It sounded world class.
For starters, the orchestra’s characteristic lucid, silvery sound possessed more body than usual. Gatti clearly knows how to draw maximum commitment from these players. But it was ultimately his clear command of the work–an affinity with its heaving structure paired with an ability to communicate his overall vision to the players–that made this such an engrossing journey from existential torment to the final epiphany.
The first movement was primal and raw, opening explosively in the tremolo octave thrusts and sawing strings, and staying that way as a grunting Gatti roamed the podium and rallied his players. The sound felt almost tactile for its substance and depth, and whenever Gatti pulled around tempos, or reached into the mass of players before him to extract detail, the orchestra was putty in his hands. Energy was spun out over the long Sonata-allegro structure so that the interspersing lyrical passages sounded especially fecund.
Welcome respite arrived in the second movement Ländler, where bracing rusticity was matched with elegant phrasing, and the strings’ roving staccato passage sounded especially mysterious. A sense of grim sarcasm bubbled away during the seductive third-movement scherzo: more impressive here than in Gatti’s 2016 recording with the RCO, in which he seems to have aimed for a similar character. Thereafter, contralto Christianne Stotijn impressed with her soft-grained “Urlicht”.
The stage was set for a grand finale, and we were not disappointed. The opening shriek; the hushed expectation that follows; the sumptuous brass chorales; the spluttering march of the dead–all unfurled in a single arc of sound. But nothing was more striking than the shapely offstage brass that wafted in from somewhere in the corridors, nor the choir’s glowing “Auferstehen” that was overlain with radiant singing from soprano Miah Persson. After the struggles had been laid out so convincingly in the opening movement, the climb to the final climax was properly uplifting.