Symphony No.32 in G, K318 (Overture in the Italian Style)
Flute Concerto in G, K313
Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op.93
Wolfgang Schultz (flute)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Adam Matthews
Reviewed: 13 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Listening to music must ever be a personal affair, with so many factors colouring the sensations as they penetrate the ear and elevate the spirit, or fail utterly to do so either leaving us with a wide range of compromised hopes and expectations in between.
For the Vienna Philharmonic to leave its magical Musikverein to play Mozart in one of London’s soulless concert halls must be a penance imposed by St Cecilia for a crime in a former life. London may have become Europe’s greatest city by default, yet its inability to construct a box good enough to improve on an decent, if average hi-fi is an indictment of central planning that Shostakovich would have recognised only too well. In this concert, we heard Mozart coarsened into a braggart bully and Shostakovich reduced by the failure of an old conference centre to do justice to orchestral works from extremes of the orchestral compass, for the concert hall, as such, is the ultimate musical instrument..
Mozart’s little symphony used too many players. Not because that is what the Orchestra wanted to do but because someone guessed rightly that so many would be necessary to excite the Barbican’s stale air. Just as Toscanini kept demanding more strings on the only two occasions he conducted in the old Royal Festival Hall, so one can imagine Bernard Haitink deciding that the only way to handle such a work was to sock it to the large audience.
As a result, the work was ‘sold’ in ways that the Viennese would once have deplored. Instead of the laid-back subtleties for which Austrian’s nicely decadent capital was famous, we were driven through the first movement with hardly half a bar’s elegance or wit and with lots of nasty accents and stabs. Where Bruno Walter would have had faith in Mozart’s craft and demanded a cultivated and cultured approach to line and direction, we were given a one-tempo-fits-all approach. Even the trumpets and drums failed to make their mark in the dense textures. Mark you, the timpani were so huge that he must have resorted to arm-extensions to cope with the last bars of the Shostakovich, which does give a clue to the inappropriateness of the size of his kit. I say this not from any slavish adherence to so-called ‘authentic’ discoveries but because of the lack of common sense to have such acres of exposed skin in such a slight piece.
Any lack of wit and elegance here was amplified by the persistently loud playing of the concerto. The flautist delivered everything with the seamless inevitabilities of the true professional. To find oneself suddenly having to work at making a beautiful sound must be a terrible shock to the system; one that London’s players have been used to handling ever since the Queen’s Hall burned down close on seventy years ago. Again, the loudness of the band dulled the ear and began to make one angry that the conductor would not, or could not, turn a corner with the skill and cunning necessary to deliver one of Mozart’s less demanding masterpieces.
As for Shostakovich 10, a mighty work born out of repression of the individual that most of us can only imagine, were we given the substance of one of the Soviet composer’s most organised gestures? From the tiniest whispers of sounds to the fullest of climaxes, did the extremism of Shostakovich’s imagination overwhelm us? The answers have to be ‘no’. In the Barbican, the sound happens ‘over there’ and never wraps itself about the ears and soul of the listener. He is excluded from the process, much as an observer witnesses a traffic accident. He sees it happening; he knows it’s there, he can describe what he thinks it must have been like, but he sheds no blood, he isn’t engaged. Shostakovich’s traffic accidents were real. The terror that drove the Tenth Symphony was not some pasted-on annoyance at global-warming, but was driven from within his nervous frame by a fear of Stalin and his chums that we hope will remain beyond us.
Well, I have to say, as a reporter of traffic accidents, that there were a lot of the vehicles on the platform but few showed signs of engagement. Not because their wheels failed to go round and their bumpers didn’t collide at appropriate moments, but because many of the sounds were inappropriate. In those many string passages, where the banging and crashing relents, shouldn’t we be exposed to a bleakness of expression that comments with irony on the superficial calm? Instead we had warmth of string sound, particularly from the fiddles, but also from the violas and cellos, that verged on bad-taste. It was certainly expressive, in the modern manner, but not with the right expression.
Perhaps it has something to do with the all-embracing complacency of modern European smugness that a nod here and there to the consistent bitterness of a genius living under the rigidities of socialism is enough? I certainly felt the lack of resentment that our nervous, twitchy and scared-stiff little Soviet composer strained to put onto paper while the tyrant’s corpse was being trussed and stuffed and put on show for the ‘people’ to gawp at.
How much this missing sense of harshness was due to the soft-grained instruments or the failure of the hall to cope with the expansive sounds that overfilled the ears is anyone’s guess. All I know is this: when the sheer volume of a large modern orchestra needs to take one to a higher high, it fell to the floor like a pop-gun’s flag announcing ‘bang’. Neither did the conductor seem to be driven by the angry madness of a composer whose life had been as distorted as that of a Strasbourg goose in the cause of a regime he may have felt it his duty to admire but which he saw chewed people into grey paste.
Having said all this, I must commend the double basses. How heroically these musicians delivered the passions! To hear bass in the Barbican is a rare experience and suggests that our native players don’t try hard enough. And when the cellos joined the basses, the burnished quality was a sheer delight. The section I felt most sorry for was the woodwinds: the only times these players could be properly heard was when they had the most obvious solos. The principal oboe delivered his at the onset of the finale with a wholly appropriate bleakness and the silvery sound of his Viennese instrument was welcome. The bassoons were also a joy, with their lack of vibrato sustaining the line. The trumpets made a fine sound until encouraged to imitate the (as was) Leningrad Philharmonic when they simply blared right through their tone. The Viennese horns also made a noble sound, although not so well under stress.