Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 74: Vienna Philharmonic / Thomas @ Royal Albert Hall, London

8 September 2017

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Friday evening’s Prom was a journey back in time to the days when a good solid diet of well-known Austro-German composers was all anyone needed to fill their musical belly. Replacing the traditional Beethoven 9th customary on penultimate nights in those days, we had an uncontroversial programme of Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. Appropriately for such a retro line-up, the orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble well-known for its somewhat old-fashioned attitudes (their gender-balance has marginally increased to six women out of 60 players on stage, but it is still pretty evident that their ethos is that a woman’s place in an orchestra is firmly behind a harp).

Brahms’ Variations on the St Anthony Chorale is a pretty enough piece, but hardly a meaty work. The orchestra played it in textbook fashion, providing no surprises. Michael Tilson Thomas was extravagant with his gestures, but, somehow, to little effect. The changes in tempo were all in the right places, and the different moods in the variations were pointed up, but inspiration and passion failed to materialize.

Mozart’s 14th Piano Concerto comes from his years of more established fame as a performer in Vienna. Its pretty tunes disguise the technical genius in its composition, and the equally technical challenges faced by the soloist; it isn’t, though, one of the ‘great’ Mozart concerti which act as an acid-test of an accomplished pianist. Thomas and the orchestra were joined for the work by Emanuel Ax, and between them they played it. That’s pretty much all that can be said, really: it began, there were three movements, and it ended. There was a suggestion of emotion in the section leading up to the first-movement cadenza, and Ax handled the the cadenza itself with delicate precision. The horns occasionally provided a little raucous excitement, and the third movement chugged along nicely – light on its feet. It’s not clear why this boilerplate performance even needed a conductor, and a golden opportunity to make this concerto memorable was lost.

Great hopes for redemption of the Prom rested on the second-half performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. It is a magnificent piece, and arguably his greatest ‘traditional’ symphony, consisting of a perfectly contrasted set of movements that, between them, chart a long slow progress to its climax from the very first note.

Alas, the orchestra and Thomas between them failed to make the performance rise above the ordinary. It was plodding in its execution, and any sparkle that it held was entirely down to Beethoven – the orchestra simply played the right notes in the right order at roughly the right speeds and dynamics. There was no hint at all of personality in the interpretation, and little excitement. The occasional surcease from boredom came from the brass and woodwind, whose little muted serenade in the middle of the third movement was charming. The mighty second movement contains some of the best of Beethoven’s symphonic writing, and alternates a terrifyingly sombre ostinato with a jaunty delicate theme; it began with interestingly detached notes, but the execution of the theme soon became woolly. Indeed, ‘woolly’ was a by-word for the strings throughout the symphony. All of Beethoven’s raw edges were ironed out under the weight of the Vienna Phil’s famous ‘soft strings’, and the repeated brass notes in the fourth movement were simply repeated brass notes – to be followed by lumpen tonic-dominant progressions. Although the final notes of the symphony had volume and presence, the dotted-rhythm gallop to them had no sense of urgency.

The evening, sadly, marked an unfortunate blip in what was becoming a run of excellent penultimate-night performances. 

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