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Sommernachtskonzert 2015
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare (1924) [2:35]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Maskarade: Overture (1904-6) [5:29]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868/1906) [29:26]
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1874-5/1888) [15:18]
Christian SINDING (1856-1941)
Frühlingsrauschen, Op. 32, No. 3 (1896) [3:27]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899-1900) [9:22]
Hans Christian LUMBYE (1810-1874)
Kopenhagener Eisenbahn-Dampf-Galopp (1847) [4:21]
Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, May 2015
SONY CLASSICAL 88875075772 [69:58]

I wasn't familiar with the "Summer Night" Concert series before this. Wikipedia explains that it's an annual outdoor concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Schönbrunn Palace, which was first held in 2004. Since admission to these concerts is free, the CD, paradoxically, costs more than did the actual performance. Zubin Mehta's 2015 programme comprised Nordic music, save for the opening Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare, played by the ensemble's brass and timpani with full-toned authority.

The programme's centrepiece is the Grieg piano concerto, and it's odd that it took this long for the piece to work its way into Mehta's discography. The conductor is certainly attuned to its open-hearted lyricism, although he lets the final coda succumb to thudding grandiloquence. A more congenial soloist would have been nice, however. Rudolf Buchbinder has moments of flair: his crisp articulation makes the first movement's transitions dance; he brings an improvisatory feel to the embellishments in the finale's second theme. But he's literal and self-conscious in the Adagio, with no sense of flourish or spontaneity; and his tone is comparatively shallow, not only unweighted but ungiving.

The Peer Gynt selections fare better, although Mehta can be casual about ensemble. In Morning Mood, the various parts don't dovetail precisely; some of the brass punctuations speak late in In the Hall of the Mountain King. The conductor allows the flute soloist in Morning Mood some rhapsodic freedom, and shapes the tuttis forthrightly, though the landings aren't always neat. He brings sufficient weight to Åse's Death to offset his flowing tempo, and builds Anitra's Dance in broad arcs.

Idiomatic piano writing rarely adapts well to the orchestra -- think of the various attempts to orchestrate Chopin -- but the arrangement of Sinding's Frühlingsrauschen is beautifully evocative of the bubbling and rushing of spring, until Mehta and the Vienna brass decide to make heavy weather of the climax. Finlandia is full of character: the strings are fervent in the chorales, the oboes sob plaintively, and the big tune, expressive but not sentimental, moves along. It also takes in a few miscalculations. The low brasses sustain the opening with power, but the broad tempo leaves the woodwinds creaking, stiffly, from note to note; and, again, transitions are momentarily uncertain.

Mehta's old recording of the Inextinguishable Symphony (Decca), made back in the 1970s, showed some flair for Nielsen's style. This Maskarade Overture, however, sounds merely ill-at-ease. The opening isn't objectively too slow, but feels weighted-down. The bows sit too long on the strings, so the scurrying violin figures aren't mercurial. The second theme goes with a nice combination of delicacy and fullness, but the waltz subject that follows lacks exuberance.

The broad, lyrical start of the Lumbye encore doesn't suggest any sort of Galopp, but, after a few clangs -- the Eisenbahn, remember -- and bird calls, the score becomes a cheerful, boisterous "train piece" on the order of Johann Strauss's Galops.

The sound is vivid enough, with the engineers leaving in enough applause to suggest a sense of occasion.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.


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