Vienna Philharmonic/Maazel in London – 1 [Pastoral Symphony … La mer … Daphnis et Chloé]

Beethoven
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Debussy
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Ravel
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Jennifer TaylorJust a few days short of his 80th-birthday (on 6 March), Lorin Maazel is in London for two concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic (and will be conducting in Vienna on the celebration day itself). His full technical armoury was at the disposal of the three works in this first concert, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (recently played by the VPO in New York with Daniel Barenboim, and music that Maazel led in Boston and New York a few months ago as a replacement for James Levine) given the big-band treatment, in a scrubbed-clean, occasionally-angular performance, somewhat unrelentingly intense over its course yet also richly sounded and expressively turned. Maazel’s tendency to over-punctuate and retard phrases can be criticised as needlessly interventionist, yet blandness isn’t on his agenda, the first movement (surprisingly, given Maazel’s seeming aversion to such things, including the exposition repeat) crisp and amiable at a relaxed tempo, the ‘Scene by a Brook’ flowing and with some magical bars of blissful reverie, a scherzo that had a nice swing to it and with room for a closing acceleration into a whiplash “Flying Dutchman”-like ‘Storm’, and the finale’s benediction a hymn of praise that noticeably broadened to a rather sentimental if not unmoving envoi. With this number of strings, the woodwinds tended to be overshadowed, somewhat apart, if breaking through pugnaciously (the horns, whether solo or corporate, were impeccable) and if some even-quieter dynamics would have been welcome, this was a ‘Pastoral’ of uncommon character, refreshing fullness, and old-fashioned Romantic values.

Lorin Maazel. ©Chang W. LeeFollowing a change of podium (to a few-inches-taller model), in part two of the concert both La mer and Daphnis suffered from not culminating in a fashion thrilling enough to match earlier excellence. La mer may have had little to do with ‘the sea’ as such – but performances of this astonishing score don’t have to be as ‘obvious’ as that – yet the water’s waves, patterns and unfathomable depths had their ‘impressions’ clearly decorated on this study of orchestral colour, balance and interaction, Maazel sometimes sectioning-off passages in the first movement (the total of three being treated by Maazel as indivisible) which somewhat lost the ‘symphonic’ epithet, yet his sifting of melody against accompaniment was exemplary. The second-movement ‘Play of the Waves’ was a tour de force of detailing and climactic assurance, and the finale a compelling ‘Dialogue’, fanfare-less at that passage where Debussy erred (in or out?) with the brass, and if a stentorian trombone summons suggested torrential force for the closing bars only for (relatively speaking) a dripping tap to be the outcome, this – in this performance – anti-Impressionistic (which Debussy might have approved of) ‘concerto for orchestra’ obligated attentive and appreciative ears.

So too did Daphnis, the opening bird-calls and gathering of light a masterclass on ‘how to do it’, the ‘Sunrise’ itself yearning and orgiastic, the flute solo (presumably from Wolfgang Schulz) mesmeric in its beauty; however, the closing Bacchanal was rather tame, if certainly articulate in terms of its notation, temperamentally cautious and making the exaggerated crescendo and sustained trills at the very close seem an added-on piece of theatre, however exciting.

Somehow, one knew the encore (and ‘only’ one from Maazel is uncharacteristic) would be a Brahms Hungarian Dance, the Fifth (probably in the orchestration by Albert Parlow) – as ever from this conductor the music was alternately mauled and made seductive … and great fun!

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