Vienna Philharmonic/Maazel in London – 2 [The Rite of Spring & Bruckner 3]

The Rite of Spring [1943 version]
Symphony No.3 in D minor [1889 version, edited Leopold Nowak]

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliFor the second of the pair of Vienna Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel concerts, the Barbican Centre’s long-circulated publicity had been confidently announcing that Maazel would conduct the 1873 original version of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. It seemed unlikely though and, indeed, Maazel stuck with his ‘usual’ edition (which he has been conducting for at least forty years), that is the final version (Bruckner’s second revision completed in 1889 as published by Leopold Nowak), not that Nowak got a mention in the programme-book that also listed the various editions misleadingly; putting it simply, 1873 and 1877 are separate versions.

Maazel conducted a bracing performance, resplendent in climaxes if too brassy with the nowadays seemingly mandatory four each of trombones and trumpets and – here – six horns even though Bruckner requests fewer of each instrument that, anyway, in his day were simply not as loud as their modern counterparts. Accordingly, balance was somewhat awry at times, and it was also an edgy if watertight performance, one with compassionate refrains. Maazel’s taut approach and the concision of this revision did though work well together, a vivid narrative in orchestral terms that consciously or not removed atmosphere and suggestion from the soundworld and replaced it with a rigorous symphonic argument, each movement directly presented if sometimes undermined by Maazel’s characteristic if not always convincing pauses and over-stressed punctuation. More wit and less emphasis would have been welcome in the trio of the fiery and graceful scherzo, and the polka in the finale (determined and triumphant) was made a meal of. Yet the overall impression – and certainly the remembrance – will be of a supremely skilled performance, conductor and orchestra as one in a consummate justification of what makes Bruckner such an individual composer, even in an edition that removes much of work’s originality.

Ideally, the Bruckner should have come first – again as publicity suggested it would – for there is little that can follow an engrossing Rite of Spring, although hindsight now suggests that this is indeed what Maazel and the VPO achieved with the Bruckner. And the Stravinsky was indeed engrossing even if the members of the VPO seem to remain slightly ambivalent to or even suspicious of this composer’s music. Maazel led a craggy and deliberate account, beginning with a superbly baleful bassoon solo (from Michael Werba, presumably), the music’s opening minutes growing from the wilderness palpably conveyed. With tempos that were eminently danceable and with each section having a thrust all its own but without losing the links in the chain – a seamless approach highlighted by Maazel taking no pause between the work’s two parts – this performance was thought-through and with a trajectory firmly fixed on the pulsating ever-changing rhythms of the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’. The occasional moment of fallibility counted for nothing when the preparation was so obviously painstaking and if, sporadically, there was some over-lurid projection (trombone glissandos, for example), the introduction to Part 2 brought some of the quietest playing of the two concerts and, unlike for the previous evening’s La mer and Daphnis et Chloé, the closing pages were a true culmination, those many changes of metres negotiated with aplomb, Maazel conducting with composure and youthful bravura.

After the Bruckner, one might have anticipated something from Johann Strauss (son) – the still-remaining gong suggested Perpetuum mobile – but we got the same Hungarian Dance (No.5) as twenty-four hours earlier (a surprising lack of ‘extras’ from a conductor who usually packs a bagful of additional pieces), and even more wilfully this time; and if the First Hungarian Dance that followed might not have been recognised by Brahms himself, such were Maazel’s diversions, it left in no doubt as to his ability to do anything he likes with music through his baton control and also the Vienna Philharmonic’s unanimous flexibility in honouring his intentions.

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