Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 71: Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring; Berg; Haydn – Symphony No 103 @ Royal Albert Hall, London

7 September 2005

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Any quibbles about this being yet another major orchestra to bring Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring to the Proms were thrown emphatically out of court at the Albert Hall. For the Vienna Philharmonic aren’t just another major orchestra, as they demonstrated with a performance of fire and brimstone to bring the capacity audience alive.

In truth the start of the evening hadn’t offered quite so much hope, a reading of Haydn’s Drumroll symphony that seemed to fall uncomfortably between camps – neither large scale in the vein of a Bernstein or Karajan, nor small scale in a chamber orchestra sense. The players clearly enjoyed themselves, and had plenty of fun with Haydn’s unusual phrasing in the Andante until that rarest of Vienna Philharmonic occurrences – an out of tune solo violin.

Berg’s Wozzeck Fragments followed, and here we got a taste of the orchestra’s real depth, helped by a full bodied delivery from soprano Katarina Dalayman. After the brass portrayed the marching music with commendable spirit in the first movement, Dalmayan took centre stage and didn’t let it go. Sure, we were impressed by the chilling power of the orchestra’s Act 3 epilogue, but all the time it was Dalayman who kept us captivated, her crowning moment a heart rending cry of “Heiland!” (Saviour!) that closed the second fragment.

And so to the Stravinsky, with conductor Zubin Mehta taking noticeably more of an interest in a work he has conducted with the orchestra for more than 20 years. Familiarity showed, but did not breed contempt, either in the savage Game Of Capture, as dialogue flew back and forth, or in the mysterious introduction to part two. Mehta set a fastish tempo for the opening but had pulled this back considerably by the Dances of Spring, which unfolded at a slower yet naturally airy pace.

The Mysterious Circles of the Young Girls featured beautifully hushed, muted brass, the section superb throughout. In fact the wind playing was also beyond reproach, second only to the vitally rhythmic timpani, sadly unaccredited in the program but an object lesson in how to play the instrument.

Such was the rapture afforded to Mehta’s Rite that he regaled us with not one but two Viennese bonbons from the pen of Johann Strauss II – Wiener Blut and a rousing Unter Donner Und Blitz, both conducted with considerable élan. The ovation continued to the point where Mehta had to personally lead the orchestra off, the sounds of Vienna ringing in our ears, but mostly thanks to the Stravinsky, one of this year’s memorable performances.

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