Although the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra does not have a regular principal conductor, it has formed close associations with a number of conductors over the years, including Karl Bhm, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Kleiber and, more recently, Valery Gergiev.
Tonight’s concert gave London audiences the opportunity to hear Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic in Berlioz, Wagner and Debussy.
Conducting without a baton but taking advantage of a podium and a score, Gergiev commenced with five extracts from Berlioz’s Romo et Juliette. The initial Allegro fugato, representing the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, immediately presented a quality of orchestral performance, the double basses especially strong and the subsequent brass declamations especially sonorous. The depiction of the Capulets’ ball was also joyously and stirringly played.
However, the great Love Scene was less successful. It didn’t help that some latecomers were allowed in at the start of the movement. The main problem was, however, a lack of any sense of flow, despite the poignancy of the flute lines and the refulgence of the strings. The Queen Mab scherzo and the final movement representing the death of the lovers were captivatingly played.
Given the influence of Romo et Juliette on Wagner’s music, the decision to programme the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde was apt. Here, Gergiev encouraged the orchestra to play with enormous intensity, the strings in particular evoking the yearning and passion of Wagner’s music with phenomenal power and beauty of tone. Unfortunately, the urgent pacing adopted by Gergiev undermined the build up of tension in the Prelude and left little room for the music to breathe in the Liebestod. The result was that the latter movement’s ecstatic climax, one of the greatest moments in music, seemed over before it was due to begin.
Debussy’s La Mer brought mixed results. There were many felicitous touches, including the way the upper strings beautifully evoked sunlight glistening on the water’s surface at the opening of De l’aube midi sur la mer. The presence of the tam-tam and lower strings at the beginning of Dialogue du vent et de la mer was palpable, as was the remarkable playing of the harps and cymbals throughout. On the other hand, the woodwind often sounded metrical, the end of Jeux de vagues lacked poetry, and throughout there was a general lack of tension which some overly loud climaxes did not disguise.
The concert ended with two encores. Both were Josef Strauss polkas, the charming Die Libelle (The Dragonfly) and the vivacious Ohne Sorgen! (Without a Care!), the latter with its amusing vocal contribution from the orchestra. They were the best part of the evening.