If this concert’s change of programme (with Brahms’
D minor Piano Concerto being replaced by Rossini and Stravinsky) was
inspired, then the scheduled symphony, Dvorak’s Seventh, and the Strauss
encores, were simply sublime. These were performances that will linger
long in the memory and simply confirm that today no orchestra in the
world can touch the Vienna Philharmonic.
Seiji Ozawa, a conductor who can occasionally
seem bland on record, is riveting in live performance. He is the very
antithesis of Karajan – and almost a clone of Bernstein, and yet somehow
he inhabits both of their worlds with consummate ease. His podium manner
– jiving in the Rossini and Stravinsky, febrile in the Dvorak – encourages
this orchestra to explore sound and colour as they do under few other
conductors. His batonless conducting coaxes from them (as Karajan did
before him) a sound world which seems utterly timeless in its beauty.
Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture was given
in a scaled down performance, but one which managed to achieve quite
exceptional heights of expressivity. One of many examples was the super-refined
playing of the violins who achieved exquisite beauty of tone in the
higher harmonic line. The bow-on-string playing was quite stunning,
the projection of pianissimos on the E string in particular being
as clear as glass. Add to this tellingly phrased woodwind playing and
Ozawa drew us into a performance which gave us the drama of the instrumentation
with an urgency of delivery.
Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes was again beautifully
coloured, almost kaleidoscopic, the three card deals each being rhythmically
different from the preceding one. Perhaps Ozawa was not razor sharp
enough in some of his phrasing, the bite which this music ideally needs
somewhat blunted by over-refined string tone. Yet, brass were rigorous
and woodwind as fleet as horses, each section providing counterpoint
playing of character and brilliance. There was no shortage of violence
in the work’s closing Final Dance – although this was playing on the
most expensive set of cards available.
Dvorak’s Seventh is one of the great nineteenth century
symphonies and this was a great performance of it. It can be a problematical
work to bring off, both on disc and in live performance: it is overwhelmingly
tragic in mood, but also needs extraordinary care taken with orchestral
balance. That Ozawa gave us an interpretation that was broadly sombre
in phrasing, but also blazing and wild during the climaxes, and with
every phrase so tellingly played, was a tribute to his conducting. This
was a performance in which all the contrasting emotions and themes were
bound together as cogently and definitively as they could be. There
were many wonderful moments: the darkly imbued pathos of the maestoso’s
close, the clarinet’s heartfelt melodic opening of the second movement
and the oboe’s recapitulation of this theme, as inward and impassioned
as I have ever heard it, the growling basses during the Scherzo’s Trio
and the astonishing phrasing during the stark, tragic opening of the
chorale like march that opens the allegro. Ozawa imbued that final movement
with rare clarity and a flexibility to rubato which gave it a synergy,
an arc-like expressivity of Brucknerian nobility. Never once did this
movement lack the pace it sometimes can, and when the coda arrived it
did so with genuinely tragic power. The playing was fabulous throughout
– the orchestra responding to every one of Ozawa’s on podium movements
with a rare and organic understanding. The strings were sumptuous, the
brass tore at the walls with Babylonian power and the woodwind were
felicitous and feverish in their phrasing.
To crown an evening of quite magical playing the Vienna
Philharmonic played two Strauss encores. Seiji Ozawa is to conduct his
first New Year’s Day Concert with this orchestra on 1st January
2002 – this brief preview suggests it should be a quite special concert.
The next Classic International performance is on 9th
December when the Royal Concertgebouw play Mahler’s Sixth Symphony under
Bernard Haitink. The Vienna Philharmonic return to London on 11th
April under Lorin Maazel for a concert of Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn.
Details and bookings can be made at www.rfh.org.uk.
The Vienna Philharmonic’s website is at www.wienerphilharmoniker.at.