A London Summer with Huntley Dent / Music

The Proms: Haitink and Perahia with the Vienna Philharmonic

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Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.
Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Prom 73 – September 6
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major
Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 in D minor
Murray Perahia – piano

Prom 75 – September 7
Haydn – Symphony No. 104 in D major, ‘London’
R. Strauss – An Alpine Symphony

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink – conductor

Perennial spring. The Vienna Philharmonic never wants for love and respect, being showered with both almost beyond measure. Their PR department must consist of an answering machine that says, “Thanks for adoring us. Maybe we’ll call you back.” Since their principal season is spent in the opera house, the Philharmonic gives few orchestral concerts compared with the world’s other premiere ensembles. After earning raves and an audience hanging from the rafters at the Proms this summer, these august visitors were described by one London critic as “lifetime members of the high table.” It’s become de rigeur to carp about the absence of women in the orchestra (I counted three), but otherwise, a critic might as well push a macro key on his computer set to endless praise.

I felt as giddy and privileged as anyone else to attend the two concerts that closed the Proms season. The program was all-Viennese, from Haydn to Richard Strauss. Compared with the narrow repertoire they played four decades ago, the Vienna Philharmonic has spread its wings; they are superb in Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky now and long ago erased the stain of anti-semitism that barred Mahler’s music after his death.

Their secret, which is shared only by the Dresden Staatskapelle, is a house style that every member of the orchestra conforms to, as did their fathers and grandfathers. You feel that their unanimity is effortless; a hundred voices blend as one. Let’s assume that I’ve pressed the macro key and offered heaps of golden praise. Was there anything critical to note? Yes, I’m afraid, and it can be laid at the feet of the venerable Bernard Haitink. On the one hand he’s an ideal conductor to pair with Vienna, because he is famous for getting out of the way and not imposing himself on an orchestra. Such restraint works only if the musicians are so talented that they barely need direction. On the other hand, even the Vienna Philharmonic needs to be inspired, and in both programs inspiration was hit and miss.

An outright dud was the Haydn Symphony 104, played with a reduced band. The only joy I got was from the sheen and charm of the orchestral sound. Otherwise, Haitink stood stolidly in place, beat time with small, regular gestures, and achieved a result that was plodding and foursquare. There’s no chance that the Vienna Philharmonic is ever going HIP; theirs is a polished Romantic-era style and that’s that. But Haydn needs a bit of special pleading to arouse modern audiences, and Haitink’s reading didn’t cross the footlights. Everything was neatly in place, like porcelain china and crystal on the shelf waiting for a party that never started.

At the other, happier extreme, one work was a complete success, the Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 4 with Murray Perahia, a beloved figure in London, as soloist. He and Haitink recorded all the Beethoven concertos in the mid-Eighties, with a gentlemanly air of poised restraint that doesn’t suit my notion of Beethoven, so my expectations were low, all the more because of Perahia’s troubles with hand injuries. So it was a delight to hear conductor and soloist deliver a reading that had Viennese lilt, beautiful balance, and real sparkle. The performance didn’t hint at the revolutionary side of Beethoven (no Molotov cocktails, only wine spritzers), but the Fourth, often described as the most feminine of the five piano concertos, responds to refinement that stays on the right side of fussiness and mincing, as this vivacious performance did. I doubt that I will ever enjoy the score as much again.

The two showpieces, guaranteed to raise the roof, were the Bruckner Ninth at the first concert and the megasaurus tone poem, An Alpine Symphony, which capped Richard Strauss’s long string of spectacular scores in the tone poem genre. I wanted to be swept away on the roaring tide of acclamation that these two performances won, but in the event Haitink had too many plodding moments in the Bruckner. He proved the unprovable by dragging the final Adagio, a movement I thought could never be too slow. The sublime moments still registered, but it was like waiting forever to catch a taxi to the gates of heaven. Only the first movement felt stupendous, building with inexorable force to the piercing trumpet note that seems like a stroke of genius, the way Turner could apply one spot of fire-engine red to cap a grand seascape.

An Alpine Symphony is shamelessly grandiloquent, the musical equivalent of a thousand-page thriller, and it makes you shameless in return to enjoy it so much. Strauss aimed at endless melody in an unbroken arc that spans fifty minutes (he was intrigued by a mechanical breathing device that would enable the woodwinds to play without stopping for air), and he achieved his end. The scenario is simple — up the mountain, down the mountain — but what really matters is the baggage. Strauss packs in a complete Viennese world, with a waltzing string quartet at one spot, along with a pastry shop from the Ringstrasse and a close imitation of the heart-stopping final trio from Rosenkavalier.

I’m reminded of a quote I read years ago extracted from a Victorian cookbook that gave directions for a picnic. The provisions included cold roasts and fowl, cured meats and hams, various salads, cheeses, steamed puddings, and sweetmeats. At the end the writer says, “Don’t bother with coffee. It’s too much trouble.” In the Alpine Symphony, Strauss brings the coffee.

This night the brass section was glorious, the nine French horns on stage abetted by nine offstage horns from London Brass (the press noted that only the offstage group had women). The first trumpet hit every perilous high note with perfect pitch. When he arrives in Heaven, John Philip Souse will kiss him on both cheeks. The tiniest detail inspired awe, like the way that the piccolo, E-flat clarinet, and glockenspiel, portraying a glittering waterfall, were perfectly in tune at the highest peak of their registers. It was to die for. A nod goes to the moving oboe solo that after all the clamor is suspended alone in mid-air when we reach the mountain-top, a meditation on sublime Nature that brought tears. If only Haitink had summoned more energy and dragged his feet less. But leeway is given an octogenarian who trails such a long and splendid career behind him.

This was my last event in a Proms season that was ramped up for the Olympics, I suppose, since we had Berlin, Vienna, and three semi-staged operas in a three-week span. Culture may be getting dumber, but not at the Proms, the most ambitious and rewarding summer festival on earth. It’s a tradition so hallowed it might be Viennese.

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