Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Prom 68: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (RAH)

The Queen's Arms

The Vienna Philharmonic have one hell of a history behind them, and a tradition that stretches way back. This isn't necessarily a good thing: it's only within the last five years that they've abandoned the tradition that women may not play in the orchestra. I recall Mahler's definition of tradition as "sloppy habits". They make a fabulous sound, rich and warm and unlike any other orchestra. But it's also a comfortable and slightly lazy sound. And that doesn't entirely suit Bartók, whose Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta opens this concert. They play with astonishing virtuosity, and conductor Daniel Barenboim brings out a wealth of detail, but it lacks the edge that's needed. The same can be said of Kodály's Dances from Galánta, which is given a surprisingly soporific performance, which nevertheless manages to whip itself into a lively finale.

They play better in Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No.1; a shame, because it's a less substantial piece than either Bartók or Kodály. The piece that comes off best in this (for the VPO) unusual programme is, curiously, the most modern: the slowly shifting textures of Ligeti's Atmosphères seem to suit the VPO's lush sound very well, and I find myself wondering if this is because its glacial thought processes resemble those of Bruckner, whose music is part of the orchestra's soul.

Barenboim is an astonishing man, buzzing with energy that belies his 64 years. The VPO are an astonishing band, too, rich in tone and dazzling in virtuosity and style. They play an encore, something by Johann Strauss (I presume). They play it wonderfully. That's both what's great and wrong with them.

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