Owing to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s custom of not having a permanent music director, its recent visits to the UK have each involved a different conductor: Daniel Barenboim in 2007, Valery Gergiev in 2008, Zubin Mehta and Franz Welser-Möst in 2009, and most recently Lorin Maazel in 2010. For this visit to the Barbican, it was the turn of Sir Simon Rattle to lead the great Austrian orchestra.
Focusing on the orchestra’s core repertoire, the programme featured the third symphonies of Brahms and Schumann as well as the Six Orchestral Pieces of Anton Webern. Conducting without a score, Rattle’s podium style was noticeably free and impassioned during the Brahms Third Symphony. The opening movement, exposition repeat included, was surging and powerful, the finale incisive and dramatic. The two central movements were also deeply felt, and if Rattle’s feeling for the moment occasionally involved the quieter phrases lingering a little too long, the beauty of the orchestral sound was more than adequate compensation. This was an altogether involving performance of the symphony.
Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces were originally advertised as following on from the Brahms, but a late change saw them played more logically as the opening to the second half of the concert. Although this performance wasn’t quite in the same league as the one Rattle gave at the Proms with the Berliner Philharmoniker a couple of years ago — namely a slight lack of intensity in the first and fourth pieces — the orchestra’s realisation of Webern’s delicate scoring was highly atmospheric, and there was an outstanding solo contribution from the concertmaster.
Compared with the passion that Rattle and the orchestra had invested in their performance of the Brahms, their account of Schumann’s Third Symphony was relatively uninvolving. The performance of the joyous first movement remained earthbound, the second lacked light and shade, and the fourth, said to be inspired by Köln Cathedral, was wanting in majesty and depth. Schumann’s scoring was presented with exemplary textual clarity, but neither interpretation or playing were especially remarkable in this concluding work.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk