Saturday 8 September 2012

Prom 75 - Haitink supervises the Vienna Phil

Bernard Haitink (Photo: Jane Bown)

Is there any more infuriating an orchestra than the Vienna Philharmonic? They’re often cited as the world’s greatest orchestra and can produce a warm and lyrical sound unmatched by any other ensemble on the planet. But their quality seems to have an on/off switch, and their second appearance at the 2012 Proms showed the best and worst of their playing.

Bernard Haitink – a remarkable institution in his own right – conducted the VPO’s two Proms. I was only able to make it to the second, but was rewarded with what for me was always going to be a season highlight: This super –distinguished maestro leading the VPO in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Haitink is much loved, but his unfussy and rhythmically foursquare approach isn’t suited to all repertoire. The Alpine Symphony wouldn’t seem to be an obvious fit, given that so much of it benefits from an almost lurid overstatement of its descriptive qualities. Haitink has form in this music, though, having recorded it with the LSO (for their in house label), and, while this Proms performance was not the last word in the work, he made a strong case for treating Strauss’s 50 minute tone poem in symphonic terms.

What we got was a typically controlled and sustained arc that prioritised flow over detail. It necessarily sacrificed the initial thrill of Strauss’s ecstatic sunrise for an even greater climax at the top of the mountain, while trying to show a clear line throughout. The VPO answered his direction with radiant playing that maintained its warm lyrical intensity at a fortissimo full cry. They did quiet too: never have I heard the opening (and closing) brass statement sound so distant and perfectly balanced.

But it’s never plain sailing with the VPO, and as if to even out all that was miraculous and finely crafted, there were fluffs aplenty. It’s moments such as these that show what the VPO’s really up to: with heads buried in their parts, these musicians are following each other and not the conductor, and a bungled entry seems to sow confusion in the ranks. Their performance of Haydn’s 104th Symphony (the London) demonstrated their refusal to play together – precision is impossible like this, sacrificed instead for beauty of tone.

And then, as though to drive that point mercilessly home, they embarked on the obligatory Johann Strauss II encore (Voices of Spring/Frühlingsstimmen) with all the sloppy indifference of an amateur orchestra at the first rehearsal after the holidays. Haitink may as well not have been there – this was orchestral playing by committee – and he certainly should have known better. 

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