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 PROM 74 – Webern, Strauss and Brahms: Tamas Varga (cello) Christian Frohn (viola) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (conductor)11.2.2009 Royal Albert Hall (GD)

Webern : Passacaglia Op 1

Richard Strauss: Don Quixote

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op 98

The second appearance of the VPO at this year's Proms had Zubin Mehta as the conductor and  again the programme consisted of works very close to this great orchestra and its traditions. In fact Webern's Passacaglia was first performed in Vienna in 1908. It very much represents  Webern's turning point from his earlier quasi 'romantic' scores to the influence of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg with its anticipation of the 12-tone method -  a turning point  that Webern marked by designating this work as his 'Opus 1'.  The piece is a remarkable break-through, not only in its tonal (chromatic) experimentation, but also in its trenchant economy encompassing 23 variations (elaborately interconnected) based on a theme from Bach's great Chaconne in D minor for solo violin all within a temporal space of around 11 minutes. Webern also makes harmonic references to later variants of the passacaglia form including the passacaglia finale from Brahm's Fourth Symphony: a nice piece of programming.  I did not however have the sense of rigorous projection of structural coherence  heard in performances by Boulez and Abbado. With Mehta the structure tended to hang loose as it were. Mehta emphasised the work's textural opulence sometimes at the expense of realising Webern's increasingly rigorous dialectic of form and content, which of course ultimately became a sine qua non for the whole 12-tone method.

Opulence and orchestral colour (and orchestral onomatopoeia) came into their own of course with Strauss's 'Don Quixote'. This work is generally recognised as being of greater musical quality than say the 'Alpine Symphony'.  I go along with this viewto a great extent,  although at the end of the performance, which was on the whole hugely enjoyable, I did have a sense of Strauss's familiar and so predictable repertoire of musical/orchestral effects; the same bleating  woodwinds, the same 'nature effects' with the wind machine etc and the same 'epilogue' music reconciled in the major key in ascending lyrical flow. These used to be quite regular criticisms of Strauss's music, but now in our more eclectic post -modern age Strauss's banalities (redolent of the later cinematic work of Leni Riefenstahl ) somehow seem to be de rigueur. The contributions from Tamas Varga's Don and Christian Frohn's Sancho Panza were excellent in their musicality and characterisation though and in the prologue depicting the Don's ambiguities and loves (madness?) Mehta gave us a very leisurely (even gemütlich) amble through Cervante's/Strauss's main 'quixotic' themes. As in the Webern passacaglia variations I didn't always have the impression of contrast and coherence found in conductors like Reiner, Toscanini and Kempe and it seemed too as if the dissonant climax preceding the Don's (cello's) entrance simply lacked dramatic projection. Mehta excelled in the more  onomatopoeic variations; No 2 with the flock of bleating sheep; and No 7 the flying  rocking-horse with Strauss's arrayed percussion, woodwinds, and wind machines. 

Predictably the Vienna Phil's playing was superb throughout - those eight double basses really resonated even in the huge Albert Hall.  I only wish that the conducting had been more convincing, more attendant to the work as a coherent whole and to the its many contrasts. I'd also have liked sharper etching in  Variation 9's canonic woodwinds depicting the Don's encounters with the monk/ magicians.

Mehta's reading of Brahms' Fourth Symphony was quite frankly disappointing. It started off quite well with the effective counterpoint of antiphonally placed violins, but by the time we reached the movement's tempestuous coda, with its final transition to the home key of E minor from a whole sequence of remote tonal modulations, everything seemed to sag in tension and drama. Tovey's 'the greatest climax in classical music since Beethoven' seemed to have no resonance here. The second movement strayed into all manner of unconvincing rubato and the 'Allegro giocoso' third movement (really a kind of Germanic scherzo) had no sense of the movement's rhythmic vivacity and Olympian energy. Mehta went through the last movement's passacaglia variations in a rather rushed and perfunctory manner and I certainly had no sense of Brahm's 'energico e passionato'. Even Mehta's slight, and textually correct,  ritenuto at the beginning of the E minor modulated coda failed to hold in the 'sostenuto' register that Brahms asks for, with no underlying sense of granitic pulse or tragic, stoic resolution.  I found myself wishing for the likes of Toscanini, Weingartner and Klemperer to come back from the grave and  reveal to us the true epic/tragic tone of Brahms' monumental  symphonic vision.

After the symphony Mehta gave us two Viennese encores. First a polka by Heuberger, and the famous 'Tritsch-Tratsch' Polka by the more famous Johann Strauss. No comment is needed regarding these performances since both were  very much the VPO's music. I was slightly doubtful about their inclusion after such a serious symphony,  but remembered that  Brahms did greatly admire Viennese waltz music.  The audience was absolutely delighted by a bit of fun after Brahms in earnest mood.

Geoff Diggines


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