Thursday, 11 April 2013

Vienna Philharmonic/Tilson Thomas (RFH)

This, I'm slightly ashamed to say, was the first concert I'd attended in the Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival. I'm not sure it was the best one to start on, with the Vienna Philharmonic presenting on Tuesday a programme consisting largely of Brahms, while the main festival juggernaut has made its way well into the 20th century (the next batch of concerts appears under the rubric 'Art of Fear' and covers 1930-50). I suppose it's not the only time the great Austrian orchestra, which is more controversial than ever after the opening up of its Nazi-era records, has lagged a little behind.

The other name on the programme was Schoenberg, and the ostensible aim was to highlight 'Brahms the progressive', to borrow the title of Schoenberg's famous essay. 'Pure' Brahms, in the form of the second Piano Concerto, was bookended by Schoenberg influenced by Brahms (the 1943 Theme and Variations Op.43b, which Michael Tilson Thomas explained, in a brief intro, took Brahms's Haydn Variations as a model), and Brahms arranged by Schoenberg--the younger composer's orchestration of the G-minor Piano Quartet. 

It was an interesting programme, that's for sure, and one that helped to highlight the slippery nature of musical modernity. (It was a shame, though, that in a frankly embarrassing bit of blurb the Southbank Centre's Artistic Director, Judy Kelly, demonstrated that she has little or no understanding of such subtleties. One terrible sentence pays lip service to the orchestra's sexual politics in a dangling clause before implying, with a hopeless vagueness, that modernity is not only amorphous but also somehow inherently egalitarian:  'Late in admitting women to its ranks, it's fascinating to see the orchestra turn its attention to the modern world and the modern repertoire'. Such stuff really runs the risk of undermining the whole festival's intent, not to mention the Southbank's reputation as a flagship cultural institution).  

Schoenberg's Theme and Variations--Tilson Thomas told the uninitiated to expect a mixture between Schubert and Weill--though tautly composed and entirely devoid of unnecessary ornament or rhetoric, represents the composer in quasi-melodic mood. (The work was composed in California in 1943, initially for wind band, and then orchestrated for performance by the Boston Symphony). Here it was played with clean precision.

The concerto followed in a performance that did little to persuade one of the work's questionable modernist credentials. It's not long since I last heard Yefim Bronfman (a pianist who surely deserved a better adjective from Kelly than 'talented' in her blurb) in the work, with the Berlin Phil and Rattle at the 2012 Proms, but here his occasionally straight-laced playing found a far more interesting complement in the gorgeously characterized playing of the Vienna orchestra. The tuning in the winds, as it had been accompanying Murray Perahia at the Proms, was occasionally a little 'distinctive', but every solo was beautifully shaped, while the outstanding Tamás Varga provided a wonderfully lyrical cello solo in the Andante. Bronfman played the long game, an initially matter-of-fact approach increasingly melting into aching lyricism (again, in the Andante) and light-footed virtuosity (in the Allegretto grazioso finale).

Neither here nor in the arrangement of the quartet after the interval did Tilson Thomas really convey much by way of interpretative approach. Apparently happy enough to allow his players' musicianship free rein in the concerto and encourage lucid textures, he similarly seemed to pursue the middle ground after the interval. There, however, the orchestra--amplified to its full complement, including 16 first fiddles, not to mention a possibly unprecedented 8 women--didn't quite seem on his side. Their commitment seemed wavering, the necessary lightness in the Intermezzo proved elusive (its final bars, in particular, were a bit of a hash), and the wind tuning, again in the Intermezzo in particular, was now seriously suspect (had Schoenberg, I wondered on occasion, added some extra dissonant touches that I'd not remembered?). The martial episodes in the Andante con moto lacked bite and momentum; the opening Allegro never quite caught fire.

And what of the arrangement itself, made in 1937 and premiered by Klemperer and the LA Philharmonic? I seem to remember quite a few dismissive comments of it when Parvo Järvi brought it to the Proms in 2007, but I've always had a soft spot for it, having actually got to know Brahms's work in this guise first, as it was coupled with Simon Rattle's Bournemouth recording of Mahler's 10th (bought with the proceeds of an afternoon's lawn-mowing, I seem to remember).

At this performance Schoenberg's orchestration seemed more indulgent than I remember it (despite the problems, the playing, particularly of the horns and the soaring strings, was gloriously luxurious). And the orchestra pulled out all the stops in the alla Zingarese finale, where Schoenberg also starts piling on the un-Brahmsian touches: a xylophone, virtuosic trombone writing, intricate divisi strings. Suddenly this emphasizes less Brahms the progressive than Brahms the Dionysian. It's an effect that's already latent, of course, in the original quartet.

That effect is greatly amplified in the orchestral guise, though, the thumping syncopations, biting accents and rollocking oom-pahs suddenly becoming, it seems to me, a great deal more threatening--a vast orchestral machine suddenly possessed. And this orchestra played it with lascivious relish.

(Here's Järvi and his orchestra at the Proms, incidentally--I'm unable to embed the video)


  1. Funny - I bought that Rattle Mahler 10 with the proceeds from gardening, too. Though I suspect you were getting more than £2.50 an hour by the time you gained it. And here is the difference between our ages: mine was a 2 LP set and the Brahms/Schoenberg had yet to join it.

    Rather wishing I'd got to the concert now. But only slightly - think I heard MTT do it with the LSO years ago.

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