Prom 73: Deep, Invigorating Performance from Vienna Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Bruckner: Murray Perahia (piano); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink, Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday, 6.9.2012 (CC)

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58
Bruckner Symphony No. 9 in D minor

It is part of the greatness of the Proms, surely, that the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics can be heard in such close proximity. Rattle and the BPO recently produced a stimulating Lutosławski Third; now it was the turn of their Vienna counterparts to deliver the goods. And deliver they did, joined on this occasion by one of today’s finest pianists.

Murray Perahia has always been one of the most sensitive of players around, and it was that trait that shone through his Beethoven Fourth. His shaping of the intimate opening statement was magnificent, an invitation for the vast audience to enter into Beethoven’s world. The strings’ response was a simply gorgeous bed of sound. Throughout, Perahia’s articulation was of crystal clarity (the occasional slip just served to remind us that we were, after all, live). Haitink is one of the great accompanists, and he responded to Perahia’s subtle rubato and agogics almost telepathically.

Perahia’s first movement cadenza demonstrated a quasi-Handelian grandeur, rising to an awe-inspiring climax. If the speed of the slow movement was perhaps surprisingly brisk, its sense of communion was more expected. I believe this, also, to be the first performance of this piece I have heard (and I have heard a few) wherein the string opening of the finale was perfectly together and unanimous of tempo. So often there is a hint of adjustment (or even the impression of waking up from slumber). Not here, and the result was perfectly invigorating. This movement, like the first, had its structure impeccably projected by the players. A superb performance on all levels.

The magnificent torso of Bruckner’s Ninth filled the remainder of the concert. Haitink is now a grand old man of Bruckner, his recordings holding their place in the catalogues (as they will for a long time to come, no doubt). The glorious Vienna brass brought imposing weight to the climaxes (and how they glowed in the Albert Hall’s acoustic!), their chordal strength always impeccably weighted. Yet it was the controlled tension of the lower mid-range unison horns that carried more than usual tension. The ensuing string counterpoint glowed, as the first movement unfolded with slow, inevitable majesty. Haitink brought a memorable post-apocalyptic thinness to the strings after the huge climax.

True, the Albert Hall’s acoustic, which helped so much in the first movement, hindered the quicksilver Scherzo/Trio. Yet even here one could only sit in wonder at the VPO’s preternaturally together pizzicato and the sense of transfigured dance. It was the ‘finale’ (the Adagio; Haitink is not one for completions) that brought the evening’s most memorable performance. Strings were simply stunning in their weight and control, while Wagner tubas brought a distinctive timbral edge to the orchestration. The sheer control of orchestral decrescendi was remarkable, but most of all, the intensity was relentless. Haitink, perhaps surprisingly, brought out the modern, progressive elements of Bruckner’s scoring. On a technical level, one could point out the beautifully sustained brass chord at the end (few orchestras would have that level of control), but in the final analysis it was the depth of the performance that touched and invigorated the soul.

A wonderful pair of performances.

Colin Clarke