MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.


Other Links

Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny
  • Deputy Editor - Bob Briggs
  • Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



 PROM 73 – Haydn and Schubert: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Royal Albert Hall London 10.9.2009 (GD)

Haydn:  Symphony No 98 in Bflat major.

Schubert: Symphony in C major, 'Great'.

As soon as I looked through the 2009 proms prospectus earlier year I earmarked this   Prom as something very special. It was to have been conducted by Nicolaus Harnoncourt who had to cancel because of health problems. Any concert with the Vienna Phil is 'special' but the relationship they have with Harnoncourt is particularly so even by their standards. A few years ago, I remembe  hearing the  VPO with Harnoncourt on their home-ground in Salzburg and also in Vienna in the splendid 'Musikverein' concert hall. The VPO plays with a great many conductors and one has the impression that in the Austro-German classical repertoire, they know the music as well, if not better, than a lot of contemporary maestri but with Harnoncourt I noticed  after each concert, during the applause, members of the orchestra grouping around him  obviously in intense discussion about aspects of the performance. I found this fascinating as usually orchestral players barely look  at most conductors either during the performance or after.

But, as I said, any concert with the VPO is a special event, regardless of whoever  happens  be waving the stick in front of them and this one certainly was. It would be churlish to say that Welser-Möst did nothing. He was called in at very short notice to replace Harnoncourt and he obviously established basic tempo preference and whether or not to repeat a particular section etc.  But I did have the impression throughout that he was, for the most part, playing along with the orchestra who have this music 'in their blood' to use the worn old cliché. The Haydn was a delight. It is amazing how relatively infrequently  Haydn symphonies are performed, particularly these late masterpieces. The VPO has little time for 'period' protocols deploying a very large string compliment with six double-basses. But this did not mean any diminution in terms of clarity, everything was as crisp and transparent in texture as any 'period' band. Delightful as it was however, I did feel the need for more sharp accents in the woodwind and brass, particularly in the outer movements as well as in the minuet and trio where Haydn most innovatively writes for basses and flute. Welser-Möst played it quite straight in terms of tempo variation or rubato and as I have just implied I felt that he was setting out the basic frameworks  and leaving the rest to the orchestra. In a sense, throughout the concert, there was a certain lack of 'interpretation', which in some ways can be for the good, but when a Harnoncourt is conducting a different experience is conjured up, Then, the familiar takes on a different, more daring tone and even genial old  'papa' Haydn, with all his musical joking, starts to sound more dramatic, more musically trenchant.

Welser-Möst excluded  all repeats in the outer movements of the Schubert 'Great' C major, but  gave us all of them in the third movement scherzo  including the trio section. In terms of structural proportion this gives undue emphasis to the scherzo, a kind of lop-sided effect and it  would have been better either not to include all the scherzo repeats, or to include all the repeats in the outer movements to maintain a better sense of symphonic balance. This is what Harnoncourt achieves when conducting this work and in the context of Welser-Möst's quite straightforward approach it was odd that he imposed a pause after the dramatic A minor climax in the second movement andante, and also slowed down considerably for the beautiful A major cello refrain which follows. It all sounded rather mannered and totally out of kilter. Tovey's 'triumphant G major climax' in the first movement sounded distinctly under powered too; much more dramatic punctuation was needed here especially in the trombone figurations.

Despite the VPO'a most beautiful and resonant  playing I felt that Schubert's great finale was  a rather tame affair here with none of the sense of what Tovey memorably termed ' the 'feeling of terror at things which overwhelm us by revealing their vastness'. Schubert's four repeated notes (the basic rhythmic matrix of the finale) did remain with me when I left the hall but I had the nagging feeling that something was lacking here tonight. When I arrived home,  I listened to the Harnoncourt recording with the Concertgebouw orchestra and I was immediately reminded of what was missing. In the finale and throughout the symphony, Harnoncourt punctuates those motivic rhythmic units in a way that is both urgent and completely in accord with whole symphonic drama boiling away just beneath the the surface of Schubert's beautiful song-like lyricism, and  he gives full vent to the finale too.

I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to hear Harnoncourt and the VPO in Schubert's symphonic masterpiece in the not too distant future. How typical of Harnoncourt to break with tradition and play the decrescendo on the last C major chord, restoring the composer's sense of doubt in the midst of the coda's C major (putative) triumph. I could go on listing the interpretative insights  that Harnoncourt brings, would have brought tonight, but having said all this, it was still a pleasure to listen to this unique orchestra playing this very Austrian/ Viennese music like no other orchestra can.

Geoff Diggines


Back to Top                                                 Cumulative Index Page                                              

counter to