Subdued Mahler and Dignified Bruckner from Vienna Philharmonic

Salzburger-Festspiele_Logo_1373976878376931AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (4) – Pärt, Mahler, and Bruckner: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 7.8.2016. (MB)

Arvo PärtSwansong


Bruckner – Symphony no.4 in E-flat major (1878-80 version)

The Vienna Philharmonic’s Salzburg concerts are generally – rightly – considered highlights of the Festival. This particular concert, however, proved somewhat disappointing. With the outer works, the problems lay, at least for me, as much with the works themselves as with the performances, whereas with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, the performance was strangely subdued, although far from without merit.

Arvo Pärt’s 2013 Swansong left me wondering what on earth Zubin Mehta and the VPO were doing performing such trite music. It sounded like odds and ends that had been rejected from incidental music for the pilot episode of a mid-1990s Channel 4 television drama. With added bells, of course. Perhaps ‘Sibelius without the jokes’ might be another way of thinking about it. The ending came from the realm of atrocious film scores. It was relatively brief, but not brief enough.

Matthias Goerne joined the assembled throng for the Mahler cycle. ‘Nun will die Sonn’s o hell aufgeh’n’ immediately offered a duly mournful contrast. It was an intimate performance, but was it perhaps too intimate? Mehta’s habit of keeping down the strings to a level of near-inaudibility, both here and elsewhere, first intrigued – the music at first sounded oddly Weill-like – but then baffled and, finally, merely irritated. I loved the pinpoint precision, however, of the VPO’s resident triangle virtuoso. And Mehta’s flexibility in tempo was welcome, never arbitrary. The beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty registered somewhat in ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen,’ but again I wished they had registered more strongly. There is something to be said for a veering away from Expressionist tendencies here, although I was a little surprised that Goerne should be doing so; alas, I was not entirely clear what we heard in its place. ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’ benefited from an exquisite English horn solo. In the ensuing ‘Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen’, Mehta’s balance between ongoing lilt and its interruptions was splendid; orchestral balances, however, remained odd. Finally came ‘In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus’: there were intriguing presentiments of Webern to be heard, malevolence all round. This, I thought, was the strongest song as performed, exhibiting real anger without ranting (whether vocal or orchestral). At least it was, until the strings fell apart: disappointing from any orchestra, but particularly from the VPO.

Perhaps more rehearsal time had been devoted to Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. At any rate, the orchestra seemed to relish this music far more than it had Mahler. As previously mentioned, my problems here lay with the work itself, which still seemed to me to descend in typically lumbering early-ish Bruckner fashion into lengthy incoherence. There was, though, much to admire, even to enjoy, in the first movement, not least the unutterably tender opening horn solo set against shimmering Vienna strings. When flutes and oboes joined, one could almost see a Teutonic forest in one’s mind’s imagination. (Mehta, I should add, was conducting the symphony from memory.) Then, of course, the music went its own, different, all-too-typically unison way. The development offered some wonderfully hushed playing early on: true mystery. Mehta, moreover, did as good a job as any conductor I have heard in having us believe in some logic guiding Bruckner’s path. He summoned up imposing grandeur, the most golden of orchestral tones too. I was also struck by how different the second group sounded during the recapitulation. Horns sounded truly tremendous at the close.

There was a winningly post-Schubertian sense of onward tread to the slow movement. I especially loved the fine viola playing (arco) against other pizzicato strings, balance spot on throughout. Some of the more bucolic writing even hinted at a naïve Mahler, if you can imagine such a thing. Must the movement really be quite so lengthy and repetitive, though? In early Bruckner, the scherzos almost always strike me as the most convincing movements – and so again it was here. This had depth whilst remaining relatively light of foot. Mendelssohn it was not, but how could it be? And even when Mehta slowed the tempo considerably, a strong sense of line persisted: rhythm was key here. The dullness of the trio material was not helped by additional dragging. After such listlessness, the return of the scherzo was perhaps even more of a relief than it should have been.

And then, there came the seemingly interminable finale. It was performed with great conviction, which yet failed to convince me. Does the music hang together at all? It seems simply, or not so simply, to be a series of blind alleys, blind not out of playfulness, still less of irony, but out of structural incompetence. Perhaps I am missing something. I keep trying; I really do. It was not, however, to be revealed to me on this occasion. There were some truly wonderful orchestral moments, but I could not tell you what they had to do with anything else. The closing bars, however, had beauty and dignity; the players seemed to love and to understand this music, even if I did not.

Mark Berry

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