Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic Stylishly Commemorate Herbert von Karajan

20/08/2014

   Salzburg Festival (4) – Schubert and Bruckner:Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 15.8.2014 (MB)

Schubert – Symphony no.4 in C minor, D.417, ‘Tragic’
Bruckner – Symphony no.6 in A major

 

A disturbing feature of recent years has been the distinctly mixed quality of performances heard from the Vienna Philharmonic; I am therefore delighted to report that, this year at Salzburg, such lapses would appear to have been put behind the orchestra, in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Strauss. The VPO has always, in my experience, played very well for Riccardo Muti, and this concert, dedicated to the memory of Herbert von Karajan, who had died twenty-five years earlier, proved no exception.

Schubert’s Fourth Symphony is not heard so often in concert halls. Although, like other early Schubert symphonies, it sometimes exhibits a certain stiffness of form, it is difficult really to understand why. I should certainly rather hear it than a good number of other Fourth Symphonies, Bruckner’s included. The introduction to the first movement opened with an expectancy seemingly echoing The Creation’s ‘Representation of Chaos’, albeit with woodwind lines that could only be Schubert’s. There was more than a hint of Beethoven too, likewise in the exposition proper, in which Muti finely balanced grace and formal dynamism. String turns of phrase again marked out the composer – and indeed the orchestra – unmistakeably, whatever the undoubted examples of influence from others. The extent to which the VPO has Schubert in its blood was underlined by the number of occasions on which Muti was able to stand back and let it play, intervening only to point a certain phrase or to coax a certain strand of development. The tricky opening to the slow movement was perhaps slightly diffident, but that seemed intentional rather than by default. There were gorgeous woodwind solos to enjoy thereafter – and such warmth from the Viennese strings. Beautifully melancholic, the movement was ideally paced as an Andante; its length was certainly ‘heavenly’. An exuberant reading of the Minuet followed, sounding very much ‘after’ Haydn, though the syncopations and the places they led were equally very much Schubert’s own. The trio was, rightly, more Mozartian in spirit, evoking the air of a Salzburg serenade, and relaxed to just the right degree. There was an excellent sense in the finale of Schubert’s Rossinian side, an influence that yet permits the composer to penetrate far deeper than ever Rossini would have been able – or cared – to do. Mendelssohn also came to mind at times in a fleet yet never superficial reading, lovingly, seemingly effortlessly played. No other orchestra can play quite like this.

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, despite its Schubertian resonances, is a very different work – and is, frankly, a symphony with which I continue to struggle. I know that many others feel similarly, but am equally well aware that, for others whose judgement I greatly respect, this stands as a masterpiece. The ‘Bruckner problem’ refuses to go away, then, and what I have to say should be taken in the spirit of my personal experience, both of work and experience. (In a sense, that is always the case, but I thought it perhaps worth underlining here.) The first movement I can follow – and, in this performance, did. Again, it opened with great expectancy. The VPO’s tone was different: pellucid, almost as if for late Karajan, or indeed Boulez, in late Bruckner (with which I certainly do not experience such difficulties). The sound, though, developed into something greater for those terrifying unisons. Rhythmic precision was crucial to Muti’s delineation of the composer’s formal processes. This was, perhaps, ‘objective’ Bruckner, certainly not the Bruckner of, say, Eugen Jochum, but was none the worse for it, especially in this movement. Woodwind ‘moments’ evoked Wagner, Siegfried in particular, but the counterpoint was unmistakeably Bruckner’s. The apparent twilight of liminal zones was particularly captivating – and intriguing. The Adagio had a warmer, more rounded tone – yes, sehr feierlich, as Bruckner marks it. It progressed with a serenity that at times tended towards the seraphic, yet which did not long go unsullied by darker undercurrents. However, I could not claim that I really followed where it went and why, Bruckner’s byways remaining a mystery to me. The scherzo was again rather Wagnerian in sonority, if hardly in form. I am afraid that, whatever the excellence of the playing, those repetitions remained – well, repetitions. And the finale was much the same. Again, I could relish the Wagner echoes and the fine playing, but formal development often eluded me. I was given no reason to doubt the guide(s); the problem, for me, lay with the obscurity of the path itself.

Mark Berry

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