Friday 20 February 2009

VPO/Mehta - Haydn and Bruckner, 19 February 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Symphony no.104 in D major, ‘London’
Bruckner – Symphony no.9 in D minor

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

The best live performance of a Haydn symphony I have ever heard came a few years ago at the Proms: no.103, from the Vienna Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. If this performance of Haydn’s ‘London’ symphony did not quite stand at that level, it was nevertheless very good indeed. Hearing Sir Simon Rattle conduct Haydn and Mozart with the same orchestra at the end of January had made me wonder whether even the Viennese had taken on a few tricks from the authenticists’ casebook. I need not have worried; the present performance made it clear that such concessions must have been exacted by Rattle though gritted teeth as desirous of period dentistry as ‘period performance’. In other words, the VPO under Mehta, a conductor more attuned to its traditions, sounded as glorious as of old.

The strings were of a reasonable size for a large hall ( one of those things that ought to be a matter of course, yet is nowadays increasingly rare. From the outset, the warmth of their vibrato, the delight of the occasional portamento, and the sheer cultivation of the playing were a joy to experience. The first movement’s powerful introduction led into a decidedly moderate-paced Allegro. I had no problem with this, though dogmatists doubtless would, but there was, I admit, just a little stolidity to this movement. Balanced against that – indeed more than balanced – was Mehta’s refusal to adopt extra-musical shock tactics, instead relying upon purely musical means. The Andante was taken at what was perhaps a surprisingly brisk pace, though it never sounded hurried. Mehta and the Viennese players demonstrated that contrapuntal clarity need not mean sacrifice of warmth and body of tone; indeed, it could be enhanced. The minuet was rightly taken three-to-a-bar, allowing for a good balance between poise and a Klemperer-like sturdiness. For the opening of the trio, the oboe solo and pizzicato strings below were as close to perfection as I could imagine, likewise the ensuing contributions from other woodwind instruments. There was a Beethovenian purpose – we are, after all, but a stone’s throw away from Beethoven – to what is often condescended to as a little light relief. The finale was fast but not so much that it ran away with the performers, this not least thanks to Mehta’s absolute rhythmic security. Again, there was a rightful impression of closeness to Beethoven but also a sense of fun, though never of demeaning slapstick. Where many conductors will emphasise the drone bass in an overly rustic sense, here we were reminded of origins but equally of their transformation into music of intellectual brilliance. The climax, when it came, was the more satisfying for the lack of exhibitionism; once again, the means and the thrills were purely musical.

Mehta dedicated the performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony to the memory of producer, Christopher Raeburn, news of whose death had reached him and the orchestra upon their arrival in London. Such ‘heavenly music’, in Mehta’s words, seemed a fitting tribute – and so was its performance. The ominous opening ex nihilo inevitably reminded one of that to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but also cast a glance back to the introduction to the opening to the Haydn: a perfect fifth, yet, without a third, not at all clear whether D major or D minor. The first of several apocalyptic orchestral unisons was remarkable for the orchestra’s richness of tone, still more apparent in the material of the second group. Mysterious string tremolandi provided a firm and yet shifting foundation, above which woodwind and noble brass could weave their solo magic. Mehta, a conductor with great experience in the music of the Second Viennese School, was not afraid of those harmonies that point their way towards Schoenberg; nor, however, were they unduly sensationalised. Hints of Parsifal, and not only the more ritualistic outer acts, added to the sense of unfolding drama. At the conclusion to this movement, there could be no doubt that this was a drama of cosmic proportions. Implacable ensemble and rhythmic security characterised the terrifying scherzo. Mehta’s reading was deliberate, as it should be, but never plodding. And then, of course, came the great Adagio, with a sense of completion that would have made any thoughts of a fourth movement superfluous. The opening lament from the violins seemed to look forward to the violas in the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Tonality, as in the Mahler, evolved rather than appearing as a given. The ensuing Dresden Amen inevitably brought Parsifal back to mind, and throughout Mehta and the VPO reminded us of the equally important influence of Tristan. Clearly they revelled in the luscious harmonies – and who could not? – but there was also a proto-expressionist queasiness to some of the more advanced language, which counselled against easy solutions. If victory there were to be, it would be hard won. For there was soon a sense of something so ineffable as to make even Messiaen seem hopelessly earth-bound. The orchestra’s fullness of tone, without ever the slightest hint of brashness, fitted Bruckner like a glove; the players’ ability seamlessly to blend could not have been more apparent. Even when the brass might have raised the dead incorruptible, there was no striving after mere effect. But after that terrible climax, the silence – whether of faith or of nihilism – was equally unnerving. Romantic attempts to console would follow, but whether it was too late remained – and in this most crucial sense the symphony remained ‘unfinished’ – an open question. Bruckner’s vision may render consolation impossible; at any rate, the concluding bars were numinous to a degree.