A Fascinating Prom from Tilson Thomas and the VPO – Not Least in the Encore



2017 BBC PROMS 74 – Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven: Emanuel Ax (piano); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.9.2017. (CC)

Prom 74_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_4

Emanuel Ax (piano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra & Michael Tilson Thomas
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Brahms – Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.14 in E flat, K449

Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

It’s always a pleasure to see the VPO at the Proms. Memories of a delicious two consecutive days in the 1980s when Abbado conducted Beethoven’s Ninth and Bernstein led Mahler’s Fifth are unavoidable for those of us who were there. Perhaps one has to admit that Michael Tilson Thomas, present music director of the San Francisco Symphony, is not in that exalted company on paper; and so it was in practice, too. There’s no doubting that one can revel forever in the glorious Vienna sound, but a programme such as this deserves a great conductor and soloist.

Brahms’ Op.56a Variations (no longer “on a theme of Haydn” due to doubt as to its authorship: Pleyel is the current lead runner) run in the Viennese orchestra’s blood, given that they actually premiered the piece back in 1873. There was much beauty here, in a performance under Tilson Thomas that seemed intent on foregrounding clarity. He conducted this piece from memory (but not Beethoven’s Seventh, interestingly), each variation carefully carved out, with a simply lovely Grazioso variation (No.7) leading to a mercurial Presto non troppo before the finale began, growing organically until the close. Perhaps more of an awareness of direction through Variations 1-8 might have given the finale even greater gravitas.

It’s nice to see Mozart’s 14th Piano Concerto getting an outing (incidentally, Pollini chose this concerto to tour with the ECO – along with No.17 and a Mozart symphony with interpolated Minuet – in the 1980s). Emanuel Ax’s reading was tender and intimate. Tilson Thomas’ orchestral exposition was on the ponderous side, however, but once the piano entered the performance went up a notch, the sense of dialogue between piano and orchestra nicely managed. Ax presented the cadenza (Mozart’s) rather undramatically. The slow movement fared better. Marked Andantino, this moved along nicely; just a notch more interior, and this would have been mesmerising; the finale was better still, the polyphonic passages superb from Ax. He gave us an encore: Schubert’s A flat Impromptu D 935 No.2, superbly shaded.

So to Beethoven, with the four horns on stage as opposed to the two required announcing this was going to be no half-hearted reading. And so it proved. Antiphonal violins worked superbly in the piece, while the horn perorations, closing both the first and last movements, had telling effect. After a superbly judged lead-in to the Vivace, Tilson Thomas observed the first movement repeat in a well-judged allegro (glorious oboe playing by Martin Gabriel). A pity the Allegretto became a tad lacklustre, something which might have influenced the barrage of coughing before the movement’s end – audience attention wandering? It was the Scherzo’s Trio that held the finest playing in the symphony, string neighbouring note figures absolutely together. The decision to add an extra second horn doubling the horn’s neighbour note figure (C natural-B natural) half way through a crescendo was misplaced however – the sound altered, and that surely isn’t the plan. Better to hear a single player go for it, really.

The finale, energetic and blessed with awesome lower strings generated some excitement towards its end, and one has to acknowledge the excellence of the second violins and violas over those grinding basses. So, a fine Seventh, especially in terms of sheer timbre – the VPO remains unsurpassed – but not one to hang up there with the greats.

The encore was interesting, though. Tilson Thomas wanted to go “off the beaten track” to use his own words – he claimed that this was the first performance by the Vienna Philharmonic of Delius’ On Hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring. A nice nod to the Proms’ heritage, and a slightly “correct” and slightly cautious account but nice nevertheless. A fascinating concert in many ways.

Colin Clarke

You can view a short film of highlights from the 2017 Proms here.


The 2018 BBC Proms will run from Friday 13 July to Saturday 8 September.

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