Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Maazel @ Barbican Hall, London

3 March 2010

Given the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s unsurpassed reputation in the core Austro-Germanic repertory, it would be easy to assume that it performs music from other musical traditions less frequently. A look at the orchestra’s schedule, however, reveals a quite different picture, with Bartk, Prokofiev, Debussy, Elgar, Szymanowski, Dutilleux and Sibelius among the composers being performed this season.

There’s certainly no reason why an orchestra as accomplished the Vienna Philharmonic shouldn’t be able to realise the full potential of a work as well known as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Nevertheless, this performance didn’t quite capture the essence of a piece that remains one of the most radical, visceral and disturbing in all music. Under the baton of Lorin Maazel, there was no shortage of commitment, power and even abrasiveness in the orchestra’s response.

There was also an ear catching attention to balance and sonority. Yet the evocation of the work’s primeval atmosphere and the projection of its elemental power were muted. Given the explosive thrust of the New York Philharmonic’s performance of the work under Maazel at the 2008 Proms, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the more reserved performance on this occasion was down to the orchestra rather than the conductor.

For a long time it was advertised that the original 1873 edition of the Bruckner’s Third Symphony would be played at this concert, an unusual and highly attractive proposition. As it happened, Maazel used the more familiar edition from 1889, with the various cuts advocated by Bruckner’s well meaning but misguided advisors. Whatever the merits of the different editions, the orchestra were assuredly on home turf and responded with as natural and consummate performance of the score as one could hope to hear.

As in the Stravinsky, Maazel conducted from memory and allowed himself a fair degree of flexibility over tempi, although avoiding the kind of ritardandos at climaxes that impair some Bruckner performances. The opening movement benefited from a steady accumulation of tension and an exciting account of the coda, while the Adagio was notable for its flowing tempo and yearning climaxes. The energetic Scherzo contrasted with a delightful account of the trio, performed with the sort of rustic charm that is pretty much unique to the Vienna Philharmonic. Despite a slightly mannered account of the Finale’s second subject, Maazel’s account of this tricky movement was particularly successful, concluding with a well-earned and ecstatic blaze of Brucknerian grandeur.

The applause for the performers was the warmest I have heard for a long time. It resulted in two encores, Brahms’s Fifth and First Hungarian Dances.

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