Two last symphonies at the RFH

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - one of the world's very top orchestras - made a rare appearance at the Royal Festival Hall yesterday evening. Under conductor Zubin Mehta they performed two last symphonies - Haydn's 104th and Bruckner's 9th.

The last of Haydn's 104 symphonies, the 'London', isn't a farewell, as it was composed in 1795, fourteen years before his death. As always, he produced a melodic and self-assured style: he seems to have been a man at peace with himself, and his music has a human warm-heartedness lacking in many other composers of the period. He was an innovator, and delighted in unusual musical effects, but kept them well under control and integrated into the overall effect.

However, the VPO's style of playing this is thirty years out of date: then, large orchestras were the norm for Haydn and Mozart; now, most orchestras use smaller forces and aim for a sound closer to the composer's intentions. The VPO's string section, with ten first violins and ten seconds, overbalanced the woodwinds (and modern instruments don't cut through the way period ones do) so that the overall texture was often unclear. Worse, they are still using vibrato: most orchestras, even those who don't go down the period instruments route, avoid it for 19th-century music: here I found it unwelcome. Barring all this, the performance was enjoyable, but it's not the way to play Haydn.

Bruckner's 9th Symphony, on the other hand, is entirely a different matter and was well suited to the VPO's style. Like Mahler, Bruckner was uneasy at the probable approach of death, and this is reflected in the three completed movements: the first displaying some anguish, the second a demonic scherzo, and only in the third attaining a gradual resolution into a calm acceptance. Suspecting that he would never live to complete the Symphony - which occupied the last six years of his life - Bruckner left a suggestion that his Te Deum could be played as a final movement, though this is practically never done. A fourth movement exists in fragmentary form, and sometimes attempts to complete this are played as a finale; most performances stick to the the three completed movements, which do make programmatic sense. (Oddly the programme note doesn't mention any of this except to note that the projected final movement never materialised).

The work still displays Bruckner's tendency to rely on repeated phrases to build tension, but under better control than in the earlier symphonies: the scoring has the beginnings of the atonality later to be developed by Schoenberg and others. The complex orchestration and emotional undertow were well handled by the orchestra.

In a brief announcement before the Bruckner, Zubin Mehta dedicated the performance to the late Christopher Raeburn, news of whose death broke yesterday. Raeburn started his career at Decca, working with John Culshaw on the project to record Wager's Ring complete for the first time, and went on to be a leading producer of operatic and other music recordings.

Posted: Fri - February 20, 2009 at 09:55 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM