Visitors from Vienna Do More Than Just Waltz

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kodály, Rachmaninov, Beethoven: Barry Douglas (piano), Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 9.3.2014 (SRT)

Kodály:              Dances of Galánta
Rachmaninov:   Piano Concerto No. 1
Beethoven:        Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”

In a city so flush with great musicians as is Vienna, it’s easy to ignore an orchestra like the Tonkünstler and I admit that, never having come across them before, I came to this concert (given as part of the Usher Hall’s centenary celebrations) with no real sense of expectation.  In the event, though, I was very impressed with what I heard.

The Dances of Galánta was a good choice of opener, because it showcased a lot of what they’re good at, such as the bell-like clarity of those opening calls and the precision of the spidery string line that accompanies them.  The wind section also sparkled delightfully and the clarinet solo was wonderfully characterful, reminding me of Metternich’s remark that Vienna was at the frontier of the Orient.  Importantly, you were never allowed to forget that these are dances: there was a lovely swagger to the string tone, in particular, especially the lower strings that had extraordinary fullness and depth.

This, in particular, made for a very special performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony.  The underpinning of the cellos and the basses was stronger than I think I’ve ever heard it in this symphony, almost like a growl at times, and it grounded this work in the very earth that it is meant to depict.  Above this the upper strings created a beautiful impression of the countryside in the first movement, and there was a jolly swagger in Orozco-Estrada’s pacing of the peasant dance.  The storm also carried real power to it, but was carefully judged so as to provide excitement without being overwhelming.  The finale, however, was the finest thing of all: the main theme was presented with initial clarity that grew into something so radiant as to be almost hymn-like (helped by the marvellous brightness of the overall sound) and the final, hushed coda on the strings sounded like a prayer, and rightly so.

That oriental flair was on display, again, in Rachmaninov’s exotic eastern melodies, which were played beautifully with lots of western polish.  Barry Douglas’ playing was extremely impressive, too, especially in his first-movement cadenza, which he turned into something poetic and architectural rather than a mere vehicle for display.  He also presented the main melody of the slow movement with disarming simplicity, and when the rich Vienna strings took it up, it turned into one of the classic Romantic moments.  Our visitors finished with a postcard from home – a polka by Strauss – that was played with all the native wit and sparkle you’d expect from a Viennese band.

Simon Thompson