The Vienna Philharmonic’s first concert of the 2002-2003 London orchestral
season, under the masterful direction of Mariss Jansons, produced one
minor miracle in the orchestra’s second encore – the ‘Death of Tybalt’
from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. Played with inexorable power
it left a shattering impact. Jansons delved deep into this orchestra’s
considerable reserves to summon playing of sublime violence and vivid
imagery; with rapier-like precision the impression was of conductor
and orchestra in a manic duel to the death. Their first encore of Dvorak’s
Op.72 Slavonic Dance, No. 7, showed the extraordinary colour for which
this orchestra is unrivalled.
The sumptuousness of the VPO’s string
tone brought both dividends and problems in Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’
Symphony: Dividends in the spaciousness it gave to the opening movement,
problems in the heaviness of the vivace second movement. Woodwind
were notably edgy and acerbic (that infamous vinegary tone), especially
in the flutes, yet there is no denying the power of the conception Jansons
brought to the symphony, inappropriate as some of it might have sounded.
Haydn’s 97th Symphony, with the orchestra scaled down in
this performance, had a scintillating electricity, but was again rather
too pronounced in its gravity. Few orchestras with this breadth of sound,
however, play Haydn with such transparency.
It was left to the 1919 Suite from
the Firebird to show what glories this orchestra is capable of in terms
of spinning colour. Much more gripping – and far better played - than
a Proms Firebird this year it still feels anathematic to hear this orchestra,
civilized to the hilt, play any Stravinsky, even Stravinsky which is
broadly conservative in tone. Kashchei’s Infernal Dance had barely suppressed
menace, yet Jansons succeeded in bringing out the power of the piece.
Trenchant brass, not always well focussed, burned brightly.
Christian Thielemann’s concert with
the Vienna Philharmonic showed both this orchestra and conductor at
their best, although only unquestionably in Strauss’s epic Ein Heldenleben.
Thielemann, unlike Jansons, makes the pregnancy between his beat and
the orchestra’s entry dynamically broad (some might say excessively
so). The result is a thrilling saturation of string tone and this was
heard to no better effect than in the opening of the work. For purists,
this was as authentic a Viennese sound as you will hear today.
Yet, Thielemann divides opinion
in an unhealthy way amongst critics. Many simply do not see the trees
for the wood – a review of this very concert in the London
Evening Standard so clearly illustrates
the point and Mr Hunt’s review is only useful for reminding us that
some critics literally are deaf. Is it that Thielemann is unfashionable
compared with, say, Simon Rattle, the echt modern day baton wielder?
In part the answer is yes: Thielemann, trained the hard way through
opera houses, brings a weighty, Germanic repose to everything he conducts
(has Schoenberg ever sounded so Wagnerian?). His is very much of a style
firmly from the past. Yet, this is partly to miss the point about him.
What he brings to Ein Heldenleben (and much else besides) is
an operatic conductor’s ability to tease out the clotted textures and
clarify the counterpoint. The final section of Ein Heldenleben,
for example, is both feverish and conciliatory and yet rarely have I
encountered in this movement such intelligent understanding of it’s
diaphanous colouring – from a kettle drum toned like a heart beat through
to the heavenly – almost celestial – trumpets, perfectly integrated
with restrained yet noble strings. The contrast he made between tremolo
violins against the sweeping drama of the horns, ‘celli and double basses
near the close of the work (fig. 105) – with every crescendo and every
diminuendo assimilated and played – was visionary. Much of this performance
was astonishing for the way Thielemann made it seem light and capricious
against a sumptuous backdrop of sound which in lesser hands would have
just sounded unbearably heavy. Often, audiences are used to hearing
the overwhelming contrapuntalism of the work at the expense of all else.
What we were hearing in this performance was a rare attempt to tease
out the polyphony.
For much of the performance the
playing of the Vienna Philharmonic was full of drama and colour – and
no player emphasised this more than the concertmaster, Rainer Honeck,
who played his demanding violin solos with supreme virtuosity. The Berliner
Philharmoniker would undoubtedly have played the work with greater virtuosity
and cleaner articulation, yet no orchestra except the Vienna Philharmonic
can make this work sound so Straussian.
Neither Mendelssohn’s overture to
a Midsummer Night’s Dream nor the inflated Fantasie from Die
Frau Ohne Schatten were on a similar level of achievement. In the
former, Thielemann succumbed to rather heavy treatment of a work which
is largely fantasy; in the latter he merely made one regret we were
not hearing the complete score. An encore, of the Mondschein music from