Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms

Once upon a time, orchestras from different countries – or even cities – had their own immediately identifiable characteristics:  London, Paris, Prague, Moscow…  These days, the Vienna Philharmonic is almost the last upholder of a regional tradition.  The clarinettist no longer has his reed tied on with string, and I couldn’t see whether the oboes were the Viennese ‘cotton-reel’ variety, but they still use rotary-valve trumpets and distinctive Viennese horns (even if they are made by Yamaha), and the double basses bow with an ‘underhand’ action (which is historically authentic, since double basses are technically members of the viol family, which bowed underhand, and the other string instruments belong to the upstart violin family.  End of history lesson).

I got excited to see 14 double basses and only 12 cellos listed in the programme;  here was living proof of the contention that Beethoven would have had more basses than cellos in his orchestra.  But alas, there were never more than eight basses on the platform at any one moment.
(‘Tradition’ has its bad aspects too.  Still ‘saucepan lid’ cymbals and poor percussion generally;  still very few women in the band, mostly tucked away on back desks;  and no named harpist in the programme, despite two on the platform – if you haven’t yet been accepted as a permanent member of the orchestra, you don’t get your name in the programme [unless you are ‘on trial’ at the State Opera] even if you have played with them for many years, like the hapless lady harpist in the 1970s.)

Anyway, it was a treat to hear the VPO at the Proms last week.  Silky strings, gorgeous brass, characterful woodwind;  impeccable tuning, immaculate phrasing, a suavity of music making based on 165 years of playing together… The combined pressures of the day job and a London Underground strike kept me away from Barenboim’s first Prom with the VPO last Monday, an echt-Viennese treat of Schubert and Bruckner.  The Bruckner (4th Symphony) sounded absolutely glorious on Radio 3.  I wish I had been there, but after Mahler 7 the night before I would not physically have been able to stand up for another 75-minute symphony!

I wasn’t going to miss the following night, so – deep breath and a 50-minute walk… This time Barenboim didactically gave us Vienna as an East European city, with works from Hungary and Romania (wot, no Czech?  Janacek’s Lachian Dances, perhaps, would have been nice).  Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta had magical sounds – at one point I could have sworn I heard an alto flute, but it was the velvety Viennese muted violas – but lacked the last ounce of edge and excitement.  The clouds of note-clusters in Ligeti’s Amosphères were fascinating to hear in live performance (as opposed to my treasured 1969 Wergo LP).  For both these works I wondered how difficult it was for the VPO to approach such unfamiliar music – remembering that in the 1970s Leonard Bernstein was having to teach them the Mahler symphonies!

For the rest of the programme the orchestra was on much more familiar ground – Kodaly’s Dances from Galanta and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 both embodying the sort of Gypsy music the players would hear every night of the week in their local restaurants.  Yet, again, was the music-making too silky, too polite?  One reviewer said he  would have traded the technical perfection for ‘a hint of mud on their shoes’.  I know what he meant.

The encores were the real Viennese Thing – a couple of Johann Strauss items (the second, ‘Eljen a Magyar’, cleverly tying in with the evening’s East European theme).  Was Daniel Barenboim throwing his hat in the ring (that’ll be his trademark silver-grey fedora) as potential conductor of the New Year’s Day concert?  If so, he blew it during a rubato in the Annen Polka which fell apart – evidently he was trying to impose his will on an orchestra that didn’t need to be told how to play its ‘own’ music.

So, with one more Prom on Friday – Boston Symphony Orchestra sounding very American (reedy oboe, over-blown horn solos in Brahms 1) but somewhat somnolent under a sedentary James Levine – preceded by a smashing dinner at Hugo’s (thanks, Tony) – that’s my lot for another year.  No, I didn’t go to the Last Night;  seven hours of Rheingold rehearsals (and a migraine) kept me occupied instead.  Still, I was there in spirit, or rather, some of my subtitles were on view at the Prom in the Park at Carrickfergus Castle;  my thanks to director Derek Bailey and title cuer Ken Chalmers.

So… do I buy a season ticket for Proms 2008???

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