Monday, 31 March 2008

Haydn, Berio, and Bartók, VPO/Mehta, 31 March 2008

Musikverein

Haydn - Symphony no.22 in E flat, 'The Philosopher'
Berio - Sinfonia
Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116

Swingle Singers
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

It is always a joy to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in Haydn. Indeed, perhaps the best live performance of a Haydn symphony I have ever heard was of no.103, the 'Drum Roll', under Zubin Mehta, at the Proms in 2005. If this performance was not quite at that level, it nevertheless remained very good. I was a little surprised at the complement of strings (8.6.6.3.2), wondering whether 'authenticism' has even reached Vienna, but then reflected that this is probably a large band for relatively early Haydn in 2008. There was certainly not a hint of any of the ugliness of tone and other mannerisms we must generally endure nowadays, just a show of good musicianship, at the service of the music and music in general, rather than trying to prove an at-best-dubious point. The sense of a work on the cusp of the Baroque and the Classical was nicely caught, especially in that extraordinary first movement with its stately melancholy. Here, as throughout, the wind instruments - two French horns and two English horns - were, to put it simply and accurately, perfect. The echo of the former by the latter in the 6/8 finale had to be heard to be believed, likewise the ineffable beauty of the horns in the trio of the third movement. Moreover, the strings showed, especially from the second movement onwards, that, in spite of their small number, they lacked nothing in drive, nor in cultured musicianship. A harpsichord continuo was employed. Whilst I remain sceptical of the need of this, it did no harm and was indeed excellent of its kind. I can find nothing really to criticise in Mehta's direction, in which nothing was over-'interpreted'; instead, everything sounded supremely natural.

I shall be delighted to be corrected, but I cannot imagine that the Musikverein has witnessed many performances of Berio's Sinfonia, and still fewer from the jewel in its crown, the VPO. And despite his longstanding advocacy of the Second Viennese School, Mehta is not a conductor I especially associate with post-war new music, though this may simply be ignorance on my part. At any rate, it was good to hear this partnership tackle what must now have become one of the great modern orchestral classics. I do not think that this performance was the last word on Sinfonia, but the orchestra sounded perfectly at ease with its demands. Indeed, it almost sounded like the repertory work it ought to be, but is still not - quite. It was only with the superlative second half of the concert that I realised in retrospect that a certain something had perhaps been lacking; however, I should not wish to exaggerate. There were certainly many moments to savour: everything from the wonderful percussion section, and the first time I heard the first flute, whose playing was beyond compare (as it would be in the Bartók). Hearing the Rosenkavalier quotations from the Vienna strings sent an apposite shiver down my spine. It did Mehta great credit that there were no awkward corners whatsoever, as there had been just occasionally at last year's Proms performance. Common to both performances were the Swingle Singers, who once again proved extremely fine, if anything even better on this occasion. The hushed, all-vocal opening bars of the fourth movement were quite magical. There was, however, a problem in terms of hearing the words. This may have been owed to where I was sitting - above the orchestra and towards the back - and one does not expect to hear every word, but it was a pity. I do not, however, think that this was a consequence of the performance as such. The reception from the audience was less than rapturous - two elderly ladies sitting behind me talked throughout much of the performance - so it served right those who had gracelessly and immediately risen to their feet for the interval that they missed the two Bach encores the Swingle Singers performed. The second, the Badinerie from the B minor Orchestral Suite was taken breathtakingly, almost absurdly, fast, but was great fun nevertheless.

I have heard the VPO once before in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, under Boulez, and had wondered then whether this was simply a work in which the orchestra would fail to sound idiomatic. It was not that it had been a bad performance, but it had ultimately fallen some way short of the best. Perhaps the musical partnership had not been quite right, however wonderful the VPO often sound under Boulez. There was no such worry on this occasion, for here one had ample cause to recall that Bartók's musical outlook was formed and nurtured in Austria-Hungary. The large string section sounded as only it could, albeit with no compromise regarding rhythmic exactitude. Every section of the orchestra sounded at its tremendous best, both solistically and in terms of blend where required. The woodwind 'night music' of the third movement and the blazing - but never crude - brass in the fifth particularly stick in my mind, but that does not reflect upon anyone else. Mehta showed himself perfectly at ease with the score - as with the Haydn, he conducted from memory - and, the very occasional exaggerated rubato apart, was largely inobtrusive in the best sense. Obvious direction came where necessary, rather than seeming imposed. What can often seem frenetic, not least during the finale, here did not, which I appreciated for more than simply being a change. For excellent all-round musicianship, I am not sure that I have heard a better Concerto for Orchestra.

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