S&H Concert review

SCHUBERT - Symphony No. 8 Unfinished SCHOENBERG - Chamber Symphony No. 1 TCHAIKOVSKY - Symphony No. 4 RFH 23 April 2001 (IP)

Listening to three intensely familiar works, played by an orchestra with many decades of firmly entrenched traditions, little given to radically innovative interpretations - can the event still be something special? Yes it can, and indeed it was so. From the outset, the VPO demonstrated just what it is that set them apart from almost all other orchestras.

As many have remarked, the nature of the VPO's string sound, nurtured over many decades, is something so remarkable that it is hard to describe, much more so to imitate. It is not a lean and pointed sound, nor a smooth full-bodied one as one might often associate with British and American orchestras respectively, but something more grainy and patina-like, immensely rich and complex. A single note, especially in the higher registers has a three-dimensional quality that is very rare. The sound contains "imperfections" which are an integral part of its distinct identity. Together with some of the most breathtaking wind and brass playing one will ever hear from an orchestra, an immense variety of timbral shadings and blendings become possible.

The performance of Schubert's Symphony No. 8, in just the two-movement version, was not one to respond to the recent historically aware thinking. While using string forces of, rather than the full complement which would feature later in the concert, this was still very much in the traditions of Schubert playing that were established earlier in the twentieth century. Both movements were taken at relatively slow speeds. The second subject of the first movement was played with seamless bow changes, as if one singular long melody without bar-lines; none of the lilting short slurs and accentuations were very audible here. In the second movement, there was something in the subtle phrasing and the envelope of sound that communicated an arresting sense of forlorn longing. This sense of sadness was always not far beneath the surface, corresponding to the mythical "poor Schubert" which some have started to question more recently. But nothing was ever overstated. In the powerful sense of foreboding and immanency, it was a Schubert more akin to Mahler and Wagner than to Beethoven (though perhaps not the VPO's Beethoven). Yet the conviction and unity of purpose that Mehta and the VPO achieved was enough to make me put aside my doubts concerning the veracity of this interpretation. I am reasonably sure that this is not how Schubert envisaged the piece; however the fact that this type of interpretation is becoming less and less the norm (compare, for example the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Charles Mackerras, for a very different view of the symphony), means that it is possible to value it all the more as a very particular perspective.

Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony was premiered by members of the VPO, and there can be little doubt that it is a work they have "in their blood". Its positioning in the programme straight after the Schubert, was perhaps a little questionable, however. During the first few minutes, for myself, my attention was drawn primarily to the contrast between the sound of a relatively large orchestra and a group of fifteen players, more than on the specific music being played. How well such "chamber music" works in the vast and sound-eating acoustic of the RFH is debatable in the least. With no reflection upon the players, the huge scale of the hall seems to dwarf the music.

Nonetheless, it was a fabulous performance. The VPO's characteristic types of vibrato, and non-too-drawn-out portamenti work wonderfully in this music. It was super-intense playing, and with a real sense of partnership of equals (also difficult to achieve in this work) between each player.

I cannot honestly feel the same degree of sympathy with Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, a work which, more than some of Tchaikovsky's other symphonies, seems to often veer close to the trite and banal. However, Mehta and the VPO began the work arrestingly and continued in a similar vein. In the second movement, the sound of the strings and wind was full-bodied without becoming stodgy. Speeds were varied carefully, as was the degree of portamento used. Most admirably, Mehta managed to resist all temptation to ham up and overplay the pizzicato third movement. I am sure that those more appreciative of the music would have found the finale quite glorious; I find the music rather superficial, though perhaps less so than the loathsome scherzo of the otherwise timeless Pathetique. Nonetheless, it was a performance of breathtaking virtuosity and precision, especially amongst the wind and brass, who played not with a homogenized sound, though neither as completely disjunct, unlistening, individuals. A truly outstanding sense of diversity made possible within an overall unity.

A memorable concert that will stay with me for a long time. I look forward to the VPO's next London appearance.

Ian Pace

Seen&Heard is part of MusicWeb Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web