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Mozart & Shostakovich: Wolfgang Schulz (flute) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor): Barbican Centre, 13.06. 2006 (AR)



Mozart's Symphony No 32 in G major K318 'Overture in the Italian Style' was given an invigorating performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra who arguably could play it without the aid of a conductor. Haitink’s rhythms were taut and athletic whilst the orchestral textures were appropriately balanced with brass and hard stick timpani having a visceral impact. What immediately struck one was the stylish VPO strings which played with an exquisite melting grace and charm. This magical performance was the highlight of the evening.

An amateur flute player, Ferdinand Dejean, commissioned Mozart to write three short flute concertos but the composer wrote to his father that he found it difficult to write for an instrument he did not like and he ended up just writing two, the first of which was played tonight. Mozart’s Flute Concerto No 1 in G Major K 313 was given a lacklustre performance by Wolfgang Schulz, the VPO’s solo flautist. Throughout Schulz played on autopilot, with a mechanical monotony producing a monochrome tone. In the Adagio ma non troppo his sound was rather dull and uninterested, displaying no variation or contrasts in tone or colour. Needless to say Haitink and the VPO offered sensitive and stylish support, saving their soloist from sending me to sleep. Schulz’s 1974 studio recording made with the VPO under Karl Böhm is a much more musically inspired and emotionally engaging interpretation.

Unlike Mravinsky, Svetlanov or Kondrashin, Haitink does not have the right temperament to be a Shostakovich conductor and the sweet-toned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra simply cannot produce the essential acidic and strident Shostakovich sound. Throughout, the Vienna Philharmonic played the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony in E minor, Op 93 (1953) beautifully – too beautifully – and that was the problem. This was upholstered, plush and perfumed Shostakovich and Haitink’s conducting was pristine and polished to match this sophisticated suave style. Whilst Haitink’s tempi in the first movement were rock steady and measured (without wilful mannerisms of speeding up and slowing down) his rhythms were limp and slack and orchestral climaxes were tamed and toned-down, lacking the essential tension, drama and dynamism required in this movement. The central climax never took fire, lacking any terror or menace: it was simply beautifully played for beautiful playing’s sake. Shostakovich does not demand beautiful playing but rather an acerbic, dissonant sound world. Whilst the VPO strings produced a deep dark tone - notably in the violas and cellos - they still lacked an acidic bite. According to the composer’s coffee-table ghost-written ‘memoirs’ Shostakovich allegedly described the Allegro as “a portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking.” Today it could equally be a portrait of all tyrants. Yet there was no tyranny here: this was civilised savagery – tamed terror with the percussion sounding too polite and well mannered. The bass drum and timpani – so vital here – were barely audible and seemed to be mimed rather than played.

The Allegretto lacked the sour cynicism inherent in this sinister waltz,with Haitink’s tempi being slack and ponderously paced, the VPO playing it far too literally, totally missing the composer’s bitter irony and sardonic wit. The pristine percussion missed the carnivalesque campness required of them whilst the woodwind were far too sweet toned and polite.

The opening Andante of the concluding movement was far more successful, with woodwind having greater projection and character than we had previously heard whilst the lower strings had an appropriate deep brooding eeriness if a rather inappropriately mellifluous one.

The concluding Allegro was an anti climax with the all important percussion again being barely audible. The final timpani flourishes - executed with hard sticks - were emasculated, the effete playing robbing the work of its shattering conclusion. The audience’s anodyne applause was like the performance – well mannered but lacking energy and real enthusiasm.

The VPO are more at home in the Vienna Woods than in the Gulag. Viennese charm – so highly suitable for the first half of the programme - was totally out of place when the scene switched to Stalin’s Russia.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Mozart: Flute Concerto K 313; Flute Concerto K 314; Wolfgang Schulz (flute) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm (conductor): DGG: 429 815-2.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10, Stravinsky; Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin), Karel Ancerl (conductor); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker: DGG Originals 463 666-2.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor): EMI Classics: 5-55232-2.


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)