United Kingdom Mendelssohn, Mozart, Brahms: Emma Johnson (clarinet), Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra / Yutaka Sado (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 5.3.2017. (SRT)
Mendelssohn – Hebrides Overture
Mozart – Clarinet Concerto
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 Op.68
To describe the Tonkünstler as Vienna’s fourth orchestra (after the Philharmonic, the Symphony and the ORF orchestras) says more about Vienna than it does about them. They’re a very fine band, and they impressed me enormously when they came to the Usher Hall almost exactly a year ago. This concert was a much more mixed success, though.
Their sound today was very distinctive, and quite unusual, almost like two contrasting halves that only just meld. The lower strings are dark and impressive, sounding marvellous for the ebbing waves of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, while the violins sounded surprisingly light and airy in contrast, so that the sound is almost unbalanced at times. It actually worked very well for the Hebrides, the two sides seeming to embody the conflict of nature while sweeping the rest of the orchestra along with them.
However, it didn’t work for Brahms’ first symphony because the airiness of the violins too often sounded out of sympathy with the weight coming from the rest of the orchestra. Conductor Yutako Sado took the introduction fairly slowly, which is always my preference for this music, but the violins’ lament lacked weight, and what began as restraint later turned into anonymity and lack of focus. They sounded better in the slow movement, and just about found their mojo in time for the big theme of the finale, but in both these movements the strongest contributions came from the winds (a crystalline oboe and a thrilling Alphorn solo, with the trombones seeing us home thrillingly), and to play this symphony without sufficient adrenaline is to do it a major disservice.
The orchestra worked in more obvious harmony to produce a beautifully supportive bed of sound for Mozart’s clarinet concerto, nowhere more so than in the tutti sections of the slow movement, where I noticed the contribution of the horns more than I’ve ever done so before. Emma Johnson’s clarinet produced a beautifully silky sound in the first movement, and song-like clarity in the great Adagio, which she then shaded back entirely for the main theme’s reprise. The softer sections showed signs of strain under pressure, however, and some ragged edges weren’t quite banished in the heel-kicking finale, something that wasn’t helped by Sado’s rather idiosyncratic pauses.
Bizarrely, the orchestra’s end-of-concert encore was Mozart’s Figaro overture, which they played with such symphonic weight that it sounded as though it had been written by Bruckner! Where was that when we had needed it?