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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 66 Schubert and Bruckner:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Daniel Barenboim.. Royal Albert Hall, London,
3.9.2007 (GD)

Schubert Symphony No.5

Bruckner Symphony No.4 ‘Romantic’

As soon as the Schubert symphony opened, with that incomparable Viennese lilt, I started to think, what does one do when conducting the Vienna Phil in echt Vienna Phil repertory, music they know inside-out? What can you tell them that they do not already know about this very Viennese classical symphony? And throughout the performance it sounded as though Barenboim had sensibly, after agreeing a basic tempo formulation, more or less let ‘them’ play the music. And it sounded charming. I could have done with a bit more ‘con moto’ in the second movement ‘andante’, and more rhythmically inflected phrasing in the first and last movement, the kind one used to here with a conductor like Beecham, but overall this was a joy from start to finish. No other orchestra can phrase Schubert the way they do, especially their so Austrian sounding almost bucolic woodwinds. I hate to use that tired old cliché but they have this music ‘in their blood’.

Many of the same qualities in the orchestral playing mentioned in the Schubert also applied to the Bruckner symphony. But here Barenboim certainly projected ‘his’ interpretation of the work more. The ‘Fourth’ ,in common with most of Bruckner’s other symphonies, has a complex history as far as performing editions go; although fortunately Leopold Nowak resolved most of these textual problems with his revised version of the 1878/1880 edition which is most generally used by conductors now. Tonight’s programme notes state that Mr Barenboim used this version, but this was not quite the case. Mostly in the first movement Barenboim imposed some of the emendations (thought specious now) made by Franz Schalk; most notably at the end of the wonderful crescendo fanfare brass sequence, which restores the home tonic of E flat major, just before the recapitulation, with an added timpani ff de-crescendo roll. Conductors like Furtwangler and much more recently Jochum also incorporated Schalk’s emendations; do they harm the work? Not really, but they are not necessary and sounded somewhat affected tonight.

It seems that the overall trend in recent Bruckner performance is to become slower and slower, reaching grotesque proportions with conductors like Celibidache and Giulini. The further back one looks with conductors like Hausegger, Abendroth, Klemperer, Furtwangler, Walter,  Bohm, to name just a few, the faster and more dramatic the performances seem. The most perfunctory glance at the composer’s basic tempo markings for the fourth symphony suggest that in all four movements he wanted a sense of drive, of movement, ‘Bewegt’ in movements 1, 2, and 4, and ‘Andante quasi Allegretto’ in the second movement which takes the form of a kind of funeral march. It seems that when Bruckner adds the marking ‘doch nicht zu schnell’ many of the today’s conductors see this as a green light slow up enormously, when Bruckner only provides this marking as a caution against going too fast and depriving the music of it’s essential gravitas; he wants a kind of ‘allegro non troppo’, or certainly a steady tempo infused with movement which gets lost if, as with Barenboim tonight, a too slow tempo is adopted. Also if one studies the harmonic/rhythmic structure of the symphony in the score it becomes quite obvious that it needs drive, ‘movement’.

Barenboim took in excess of twenty minutes for the first movement. He didn’t sustain the basic slow tempo as Bohm did in his later recording of the work with the same orchestra, tending to slow down further in the more lyrical sections and accelerate at climaxes. The thrilling long horn calls which reconfirm the home tonic in the movements coda sounded resplendent tonight…those Vienna horns!

Barenboim just about sustained the very slow tempo he adopted for the ‘Andante quasi Allegretto’. With the movements C minor tread there are certainly echoes of Schubert here and although the tempo was too slow the noble E flat climax was impressive more in terms of the magnificence of the Vienna Phiharmonic's brass choir. The recapitulation and ‘penseroso’ close was a model of sustained pp string playing, with the ghost of the march theme on timpani so ‘there’. In contrast to the other movements Barenboim took the ‘Scherzo’ at a tremendous lick (similar here to Furtwangler who Barenboim admires above all conductors) with aptly forceful rhythmic drive. Once again the Vienna horns excelled themselves, resonating amply around the vastness of the Albert Hall.

The long forty-two-bar introduction to the last movement over the dominant B flat pedal point, with horns again interjecting their calls from the Scherzo sounded awe-inspiring at Barenboim’s slow and sustained tempo. The descending octave leap at the powerful unison climax (the work’s climax?) again consumed the Hall; how clearly the woodwind and string configurations (usually lost with most orchestras) could be heard amidst brass and percussion at highest volume tonight! And the long finale went mostly very well, with a predictably resplendent coda. Occasionally Barenboim lingered on a lyrical phrase, holding up the composers ‘drive’ but the superb orchestra always managed to get back on course so to speak. The various chorale inversions/transformations which hold the massive structure together where an object lesson in brass/woodwind unity, never simply loud but tremendously      powerful and full toned.

Overall this performance was flawed as an interpretation but as a concert event, with other Vienna Philharmonic experiences, the playing was in a class of its own, and won over despite the interpretive shortcomings. However for repeated listening to this work I will continue to go to those conductors who more consistently adhere to the composer’s eminently logical tempo markings which for me cohere more convincingly to the score and its realization in performance.


Geoff Diggines

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