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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 71: Haydn, Berg, Stravinsky: Katarina Dalayman (soprano), Wiener Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 7 September, 2005 (AR)
Zubin Mehta and the Wiener Philharmoniker opened their beautifully balanced programme with a plush and perfumed performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.103 in E-flat major ‘Drumroll’. Throughout this elegant performance one was absolutely amazed by the refined seductiveness of the strings, even though some other aspects of the interpretation were less absorbing.
Mehta’s reading was in the nineteenth century tradition of performance practice (like Beecham) as opposed to recent ‘authentic’ interpretations like that of Harnoncourt who brings out the dissonances of this dark score (see further listening below). In the introduction Adagio the drum roll tremolo was far too soft toned and indistinct; by stark contrast Harnoncourt gets the timpanist to ad lib - ‘ad libertum’ with a ‘forte’ dynamic - as an extended militaristic tattoo like a drum processional which has much more dramatic impact.
The Andante, with brass and timpani again sounding too restrained and soft toned, failed to make headway just as the Menuet and Finale lacked particular characterization or dynamic contrast. The performance was redeemed by beautiful and alert string playing, although throughout it seemed sometime that the orchestra was on autopilot, with members appearing hardly to look at Mehta. This string-orientated reading received only a lukewarm response from a packed house.
The highlight of the evening was a mesmerising performance of Berg’s Three Fragments from 'Wozzeck'. This was Berg at his most stark and brooding, and no other orchestra in the world gets this ‘Berg sound’- an eerie and acidic darkness - in quite the same way.The playing of the strings in the opening of Act III was a pure Wiener Philharmoniker pianissimo for the orchestra plays quietly like no other. Unfortunately such subtleties seemed to wash over a rather fidgety and noisy audience.
Soprano Katarina Dalayman’s voice was ideally suited to the role of Marie: dark toned, full bodied and powerful, filling the vast Albert Hall with ease. The only disappointments, to my mind, were that the all important children’s chorus and Marie’s son were cut from Act III Scenes 4-5, and that the audience seemed to lack any great appreciation of this extraordinary music making.
Reasonably enough, the VPO are thoroughly schooled in the Austro-German tradition and are not necessarily best suited to the percussive style of Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Having said that, they played Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with stately rather than savage style, making it sound almost ‘classical’ in intonation: with beauty (if you like) at the expense of brutality.
In the opening of Part 1 the woodwind sounded fruity and elegant while the stabbing strings showed their extraordinary warmth and depth once more rather than forceful attack. The closing percussive passages were also very polished and pristine. The introduction to Part 2 was uncannily haunting however with the muted trumpets playing true pianissimo again : I have never heard this brooding section played with such perfect intonation. To round the performance off, the closing timpani passages were emotionally intense and equally perfectly played, with the principal timpanist summoning up splendidly incisive vigour.
For encores, we were treated to Johann Strauss II’s Wiener Blut Waltz and the Thunder and Lightning Polka which brought the house down. Indeed these encores proved far more popular with the Promenaders than the official programme!
Haydn: Symphony No. 103; ‘Drum Roll’, Symphony No. 96 ‘Miracle’; Symphony No. 94 ‘Surprise’: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor): Elatus: Warmer Classics: 2564-60337-2.
Berg: Wozzeck (Excerpts), Dunja Vejzovic (soprano); Mozart Symphony No. 33: Wiener Philharmoniker & Boys’ Choir, Carlos Kleiber (conductor): Live Recordings: 1982 & 1979 Vienna: Exclusive: EX92T47.
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring, Schubert: Symphonie 9, C-Dur D. 944: Wiener Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta (conductor): Live Recording: Salzburg Festival 1985: Orfeo: C 566 012 B.
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