One of the major disappointments of this year’s BBC Proms was learning of the unfortunate withdrawal through illness of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was due to conduct this programme linking London and Vienna.
Franz Welser-Möst proved an able substitute, directing with his customary lack of fuss, but the issue remained throughout both symphonies of the extra interpretative insights the world-renowned Harnoncourt would have brought to the podium.
The Haydn in particular was crying out for an extra gear, the orchestra’s playing perfectly stylistic and responsive, but shying away from the opportunities offered for a little extra wit, particularly in the finale.
The introduction to No.98 is one of Haydn’s more serious symphonic utterances, thought to be a brief memorial to Mozart who had died a year before, and was nicely weighted by the conductor, marshalling his sizeable string forces to achieve a satisfying balance. Yet while audiences at the Hanover Square premiere would have been delighted by the sparkling addition of a fortepiano, and some riotous solos for the orchestra leader, these were both performed with a straight face.
The Schubert fared better, the Vienna Philharmonic’s sumptuous sound beautifully tailored for this wonderfully vibrant, outdoors music. Welser-Möst was content even to stand and admire through some passages, though coaxed a beautifully weighted trio in the Scherzo, a perfectly weighted second subject in the finale and a seamless transition to the faster tempo in the first movement.
That said there was a lopsided feel to the whole interpretation through the conductor’s decision to dispense with repeats in the outer movements but include them all in the Scherzo, the whole symphony weighted too heavily towards this movement as a result.
It was better to concentrate on how magically the orchestra conveyed Schubert’s exuberance in the outer movements, the detail and precision of woodwind, brass and timpani in particular beyond criticism. Similarly impressive was the achievement of playing this symphony with just two horns instead of the customary four, the ear not noticing the difference.
Yet the nagging question remained. What would Harnoncourt have done? Instinct suggests he would have taken the orchestra well outside their comfort zone, challenging their thinking of how Haydn and Schubert are performed, and securing some wholly individual but always interesting viewpoints. Few of these were on show here, the feeling remaining that we had been for an open-air drive in a Rolls Royce, the settings on automatic.