Even though the tail end of the Proms season usually brings a number of prestige orchestras to the Royal Albert Hall, it’s nevertheless a rare luxury to have the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestras all appearing in little more than a week.
For the first of their two appearances, both conducted by Bernard Haitink, the Vienna Philharmonic performed Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. No doubt the length of the programme precluded an overture, although one would have been useful for warming up both performers and audience in advance of the concerto. As it happened, the performance took a few minutes to come to life, not helped by a sense of caution and some minor blemishes in Murray Perahia’s playing. The performance gradually blossomed, however, with some exquisite lyricism from Perahia and a superb account of the first movement cadenza.
Following this, the Andante brought delicacy and inwardness, Perahia’s searching interpretation offset by the forbidding, almost wrathful, proclamations from the orchestra. The finale, by contrast, was luminous and joyful, buoyed by both Perahia’s spontaneous approach and the lively orchestral accompaniment under Haitink.
Bruckner has been a core part of Haitink’s repertoire for five decades, and this experience, coupled with the Vienna Philharmonic’s pedigree in the music of this composer, resulted in a highly distinctive performance of the Ninth Symphony. The first movement, underpinned by the orchestra’s depth of string tone and weighty brass, was notably expressive, with a strong sense of line and superbly terraced climaxes. There was a compelling sense of having embarked on a long journey.
Although ensemble in the Scherzo was not always ideally sharp, the interpretation had a sense of weight and remorselessness, with the pizzicato strings particularly intense. The performance of the Adagio was less convincing, however, partly as a result of Haitink’s unyieldingly slow tempo throughout the movement. As a consequence, transitions between the music’s contrasting sections were not always seamless, and the interpretation occasionally seemed to lose focus. The orchestral playing, however, provided considerable compensation and the Adagio’s coda was movingly rendered. With Haitink reluctant to adopt any of the reconstructions of the symphony’s incomplete finale, the symphony’s long journey came to rest at peace, the final destination yet to be determined.