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Sommernachtskonzert 2021
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
I vespri siciliani: Overture [9:34]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873 - 1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op 43 [24: 42]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 - 1990)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story [13:20]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857 - 1934)
Salut d'amour, Op 12 [3:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 - 1918)
Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, L 86 [11:10]
Gustav HOLST (1874 - 1934)
The Planets, Op 32: IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity [8:30]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825 - 1899)
Wiener Blut, Walzer, Op 354 [9:34]
Igor Levit (piano)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Daniel Harding
rec. live, 18 June 2021, Schloss Schonbrunn, Vienna
SONY CLASSICAL 19439904912 [80:44]

The theme of this Summer Night Concert is “the longing for distant places”, hence the eclectic programme. The main point of interest for me was to hear Igor Levit’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but every item is what Beecham would have called a “lollipop” and contributes to what must have been a fine evening’s entertainment – indeed, I believe that the concert itself featured two more items, heard on the download and in the visual formats, for which there is no room on a CD: Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 played by Levit as an encore to the Rachmaninoff and the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite – adding yet more diversity to what could hardly be a more diverse anthology of favourites.

The sound here is in fact necessarily rather poor, the concert having been recorded outdoors, so there is a fair amount of ambient rustle – presumably breeze – the applause is left in and the orchestra comes across as fairly bass heavy; presumably that background noise is less apparent if one has the visual distraction of watching this on the alternative media of the Blu-ray or DVD issues.

The entertainment here starts with a lively performance of a Verdi overture which is far from being one of his best, but it is stirring enough, with lots of martial blare and incident. The main item follows, but again, I find my enjoyment of the Rhapsody impaired by the constant rushing sound in the background. Levit initially opts for the fast, flashy approach which is superficially impressive but tends to eschew any darker undertones and I’m not sure I register sufficient requisite change of mood between the first block of five variations and the dreamier sixth. The Dies Irae theme, however, is properly “cantabile” yet menacing, and the col legno accompaniment is really macabre and ominous. Levit and Harding certainly capture the otherworldly nature of No 11 and there is some devilish prestidigitation in No 15. The famous love theme of No 18 - the inversion of the main caprice motif – is first tenderly and delicately played without overdoing the rubato or leaning too heavily on the beat so that it can build satisfyingly to an overwhelming climax - astonishing given that this transitional arc of emotion must be achieved in a variation lasting less than three minutes. Levit positively hurtles towards the finishing line in the final group of six but then makes a lovely job of the diffident, truncated conclusion. Despite my wishing that he had treated the opening group differently, there is so much to enjoy here that I regret the indifferent sound quality.

After such showmanship, the segue into Bernstein’s West Side Story dances seems entirely natural and wholly uplifting. The two outer dances are given sassy, brassy performances book-ending a swooning ‘Somewhere’ and a lilting Scherzo. The change of mood to Elgar and Debussy is almost wrenching: first a sentimental bon-bon then the swirling, languorous Impressionism of Debussy’s diaphanous score, sumptuously played, before we launch into the most rumbustious and good-humoured of Holst’s Planets. I’m not sure that Harding and the VPO are entirely at home with this music; there is the occasional, fleeting moment of rhythmic hesitation and disjuncture but the glorious Big Tune still makes an impact, even if it is a tad understated.

We can hardly complain if a concert situated in the Hapsburgs’ summer palace is brought to an end with the music of one of Vienna’s favourite sons, the Wiener Blut waltz – and here, of course, the orchestra could hardly sound more idiomatic and comfortable.

The timings I provide are from a download website as weirdly Sony provides none at all, not individual tracks, nor whole works, nor the total.

Ralph Moore

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