Conductors aren’t gods anymore, and all orchestras sound pretty much alike. Does one phenomenon have anything to do with the other? The depressing thought that it might occurred to me more than once while listening to three concerts played in Avery Fisher Hall not long ago by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under the direction of its principal conductor, Riccardo Chailly. When I was a music student in New York back in the sixties, the Concertgebouw’s visits to Carnegie Hall were always eagerly anticipated, and most of us could sit blindfolded and identify this orchestra from its unique sonic character, a deep-centered, perfectly blended, old-mahogany-rich sound that seemed to permeate the entire ensemble from the top notes of the piccolo down to the low C of the double bass. We first got to know the Concertgebouw’s inimitable musical persona from old recordings by Willem Mengelberg and Eduard Van Beinum, and it was good to hear Bernard Haitink developing fresh interpretations within the same glowing instrumental context.
Chailly has been in charge of the Concertgebouw since 1988 – time enough to stamp his ideas on the orchestra – but even after a decade, his musical character remains strangely illusive and lacking any special definition. But then, Chailly shares that sense of anonymity with most of the conductors of his generation, aged 45 to 60, musicians who have inherited the great orchestras of the world from their larger-than-life predecessors but project distinctly small personalities in comparison. More than that, the Concertgebouw no longer sounds the same, and the sort of impersonal, could-be-from-anywhere sound that the orchestra now cultivates no doubt reflects its Italian-born music director’s own cosmopolitan background. Worse, the ensemble has loosened a great deal in matters of attack, chording, and instrumental blend, although that might have been due to the vagaries of the moment, unfamiliar hall acoustics, jet lag, or whatever. I probably should point out that a colleague from the Times praised the orchestra for exhibiting precisely the technical virtuosity and precision that I found lacking – different ears hear different things, but I would have thought that such problems as sloppy entries, uncertain rhythmic pulse, and sour intonation were not subjective issues.
The Concertgebouw’s recent London/Decca recordings under Chailly, not surprisingly, have a more handsome veneer, even if the interpretations still sound very objective and nonspecific. In that respect, I took away more from the orchestra’s performance of the Mahler Fifth Symphony as heard at home over a CD player. Some might even find a certain merit to Chailly’s dry-eyed, coolly efficient reading – if one wants, or needs, a respite from Bernstein’s overwhelming tragic vision or Karajan’s magisterial Olympian thunder. Without recorded Concertgebouw comparisons on hand, I could only wonder why the accompaniments to Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and the Berg Violin Concerto sounded so vague and characterless, although some compensations were to be had from Arcadi Volodos’s infallible fingers in the former and Frank Peter Zimmermann’s poetic tracing of the solo line in the latter.
Perhaps the most enjoyable performance of the three evenings was Rossini’s Stabat Mater. This eloquent bel canto setting of the old liturgical Latin hymn hardly depends on the imposing instrumental forces of the Concertgebouw for its effect, but the solo vocal quartet was choice – Barbara Frittoli, Sonia Ganassi, Stuart Neill, and Michele Pertusi – and Chailly for once seemed genuinely engaged by a score that obviously puts him closely in touch with his musical roots.