For their second appearance at the 2009 Proms, the Vienna Philharmonic once again demonstrated their superlative artistry in the music of the Austro-German tradition, this time under the baton of conductor Zubin Mehta.
Not mentioned in the Proms guide, but very welcome nonetheless, was the inclusion of Webern’s Passacaglia in the programme. Composed in Vienna in 1908 and designated Opus 1, the work’s scoring for full orchestra contrasts strongly with the sparse instrumental textures that characterise Webern’s later works. Mehta’s interpretation emphasised the work’s late romantic lineage rather than its expressionistic potential, the orchestra’s sumptuous yet delicate delivery evoking Strauss, Mahler and even Debussy amidst the passionate climaxes.
Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, another work based on a series of variations, was performed with the cello and viola parts played by the orchestra’s section leaders, Tamás Varga and Christian Frohn. Varga’s interpretation was highly expressive, capturing the essence of the music’s mock grandeur, fantasy and poetry, while Frohn was if anything even finer, projecting warmth, humour and ardour.
Throughout the work, the Vienna Philharmonic provided an orchestral tapestry of the utmost transparency and refinement, with impressive solos from oboe, cor anglais and bassoon. The passage for woodwind and brass representing the sheep was particularly sharply etched, sounding more modern than the earlier Webern, while the glowing third variation demonstrated the quality of the strings. Aside from a slight reserve in climaxes, it was an imposing realisation of Strauss’s masterly tone poem.
The performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony which followed had many of the features which made the same conductor and orchestra’s performance of Bruckner’s Ninth so memorable earlier in the year, namely a feeling of intuitive connection with the music. As with the earlier performances, Mehta conducted from memory and the Vienna Philharmonic responded with their finest playing, culminating in a riveting account of the fourth movement passacaglia.
After this über-serious meditation, the orchestra let their hair down with two encores, Hellmesberger’s Light-footed Polka and Johann Strauss’s Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka. Both were delivered with life enhancing ebullience, sophistication and panache.