Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic: A Less Than Satisfying Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Webern, and Schumann:Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 17.6.2012 (MB)

Brahms: Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90
Webern: Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Schumann: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.97, ‘Rhenish’

This Sunday-evening visit to London by the Vienna Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle seemed heralded by little fanfare, especially when contrasted with last year’s concerts from Rattle and his ‘home’ Berlin orchestra. (The Mahler Third Symphony I caught, praised to the skies by many, was for me a less than happy experience.) Perhaps there was no need, the prospect speaking largely for itself; at any rate, the lack of hype was refreshing, relieving one of the temptation to react against it before the concert had even begun.

Alas, reaction would set in within a minute or two of its opening. I had not previously been a fan of what I had heard of Rattle’s Brahms; an inordinately fussy Proms performance of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn lodged itself in the memory for all the wrong reasons. This performance of the Third Symphony was worse still, indeed quite the worst I have ever heard. I tried to tell myself that it was skirting the risk of indulgence, when in truth it had passed into and beyond that territory some time earlier. The first movement’s second subject was taken at such a snail’s pace and with such little sense of any basic pulse that it was robbed of even the slightest aspiration to life. ‘Excitable’ would be a kind way of describing the opening of the development; its renewed attempt at vigour seemed to come from nowhere and soon passed into renewed torpor. The recapitulation proceeded in similar fashion to the exposition (heard twice); indeed, inflections of tempo were identical, so as to remove any doubts concerning ‘spontaneity’. It was all rather like wading through treacle, with the occasional nasty fall. The ‘Andante’ was subjected to similar pulling around, momentum quite lacking, certain passages milked as if in a bad parody of Rachmaninov. Here, as earlier, Rattle seemed to confuse thinness and thickness with light and shade, but the fault surely lay with the orchestra too, which was on anything but its best form. Indeed, had the programme not told me that this was the Vienna Philharmonic, and had the orchestra on stage not resembled the Vienna Philharmonic, I should never have believed that it was. The third movement was a little better, less exaggerated, though ultimately Rattle still made a meal out of it. We reverted to type in the finale, when it occurred, sadly, to me that I had never heard the VPO sound so petulant, so brash; that, of course, was prior to a grotesque slowing of tempo for no apparent reason. Volume did not equate to depth, whether of tone or interpretation. I was left longing for the sanity of a Klemperer or a Sawallisch.

Webern’s Op.6 Orchestral Pieces, originally scheduled to close the first half, were shifted to the opening of the second. Whilst hardly receiving a revelatory performance, a comparison with Rattle’s 2010 Berlin Philharmonic Proms reading being unfavourable in most respects, this was much preferable to the Great Brahms Massacre. (Odd, how someone so skilled in the music of the Second Viennese School can be so utterly at sea with Brahms, but there it is.) Here at least there was a sense of life, and also of pulse. Perhaps the first piece was too swift for ‘Langsam,’ but it was a relief nevertheless. The translucence of the second and third pieces contrasted strongly with the sludge of Brahms, even though the Viennese players sounded as though they might have tried a little harder. At least the Funeral March was possessed of a proper sense of purpose, on the swift side again, but not inappropriately so. There were, moreover, intriguing hints of what was to come with Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as backward glances to Mahler. The tones of the fifth movement resonated wonderfully, as if in aftershock. Eeriness was poised between Heaven and Hell: a foretaste of Mahler’s ‘Purgatorio’ perhaps? Likewise the shards of Romanticism in the sixth movement glistened, yet still fell under the shadow of what had gone before. This performance, I should note, was given in the slimmed down 1928 revision.

Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony was given with a larger orchestra than has been recently fashionable, the five double basses almost as many in number as the first violins of which I have heard tell in certain performances. At least its first movement was not dragged out as its Brahmsian counterpart had been. Instead, we heard a generally hard-driven account, with a few arbitrary slowings down, especially during the development and recapitulation. I was puzzled here and throughout by the fierceness of the VPO’s tone, not least in the strings, but elsewhere too. Again, had I not known which orchestra this was, I should never have guessed. The second movement was oddly turbo-charged, again suffering from unpleasantness of orchestral tone. It seemed both to bludgeon and to skate over the surface. The basic, or better first, tempo for the third movement was relatively swift, but that was not really the problem; for one thing, it slowed down dramatically within a minute or so. It was Rattle’s micro-management of every phrase that truly troubled: inordinately fussy, recalling that Proms Brahms performance, rendering the performance more or less incoherent. The Cologne Cathedral movement came off relatively well. Textures were sometimes congested, but at least there was a sense of direction to it. I was almost – almost, I repeat – moved. The relationship of the finale to its predecessor was unclear; it seemed too blithe, too much like unearned light relief. However, given much of what we had heard earlier, there was something to be said for light relief. That is, until it was eclipsed by blaring brass, such as I could never have imagined emanating from Vienna.

Mark Berry