VPO in London with Sir Simon

Haydn: Symphony No 88 in G
Berg: Lulu Suite
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 December, 2000
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

One of the recent developments in London concert life has been the frequency of Sir Simon Rattle’s appearances. Free from responsibilities in Birmingham, and with his position in Berlin not taking effect until 2002, guest conducting has naturally assumed centre-stage. Within the last two months alone, he has directed the London Symphony in outwardly spellbinding accounts of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in intermittently revelatory concerts of Berlioz. His relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic now established, appearances with them, as part of their annual Festival Hall residency, form a welcome part of his current schedule.

On this occasion, he chose a historical overview of the Viennese repertoire, beginning with Haydn’s 88th Symphony. Its fair to say that only Rattle could have integrated so many aspects of ’authentic’ practice into the performance psyche of the VPO. The sparing vibrato, the astringent wind timbre, the use of hard sticks on timpani: all were drawn into a performance as much choreographed as conducted, which says much about the trust that Rattle inspires in this orchestra. Yet after a limpid introduction, the opening Allegro had a self-conscious, almost didactic streak, intensified in the Largo. One of Haydn’s most original movements, not least for its subtle developing variation, emerged devoid of spontaneity; the sculpted diminuendi, and granitic punctuations from trumpets and timpani, suggesting an analysis in sound rather than an interpretation in the making. The bracing Minuet, with its delectably rustic Trio, and vibrant Finale were all the better for their more relaxed profile; Rattle content to let the music happen instead of streamlining its musical essence.

The one truly Viennese work in the programme was also the most recent. Berg’s Lulu Suite makes an admirable précis of his unfinished masterpiece, and the four orchestral movements make better formal sense without the ’Lied der Lulu’ interspersed at mid-point. Rattle has conducted the work on numerous occasions [his 1988 account of the complete suite (EMI CDC7 49857 2) is among the finest of his earlier Birmingham recordings], and clearly relished the opportunity to deploy the VPO string sound in the doom-laden ecstasy of the ’Rondo and Hymn’. The closing ’Adagio’ was powerfully shaped, the overwhelming culmination of an era of intensely inward expression, with only a premature entry from the piano at the climactic ’death’ chord to detract from the overall impact. The incisive ’Ostinato’ found ensemble less secure, the percussion not quite on top of their role in proceedings. The ’Variations’ too suffered from a degree of rhythmic bluntness, though Rattle ensured that at least the tempo and character of each variation was clearly delineated. A pity such finely-drawn irony was lost on a clearly nonplussed audience.

How to interpret Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at the onset of the new century? The thought must cross the mind of every thinking performer – not least Rattle, whose recorded cycle of the symphonies with the VPO is due to commence next year. There were many fine things in this account. The Allegro con brio was taut but never over-stretched, with the opening phrase retaining its inimitable profile but not inflexibly so, the plaintive oboe soliloquy at the outset of the recapitulation judged to a nicety, and the coda capping the movement with truly classical fatalism. The Andante con moto, its twin variational strands exuding heroic pathos, was the highlight of the performance, with Rattle’s preference for dynamic extremes serving a wholly musical purpose. If the (once through) Scherzo felt under-characterised, despite trenchantly articulated strings in the Trio’s fugato, the ominous lead-in to the Finale was unerringly paced.

Admittedly in this latter, Rattle has a fair way to go. The visceral quality of the music was well to the fore, but there was a lingering sense that Beethoven’s unbridled triumph hasn’t quite been secured; that it can’t be allowed to speak directly to our ostensibly more cynical age. The development’s protean intensity was grippingly portrayed, the window onto the Scherzo quizzical and unexpected, with Rattle again demonstrating how authentic sound need not mean loss of impact (though the timpanist’s tendency to hit rather than strike the skins did not always make for perfect clarity). One day he will find an inevitability in those C major reiterations to make the coda even more spellbinding. For now, this remains an often thought-provoking interpretation in the making.

The almost capacity audience responded with enthusiasm, and listened attentively, if not a little bemusedly, to the encore. Sibelius’s Scene with Cranes is not a piece the VPO can be overly familiar with, but their conviction suggested Rattle could profitably open out new areas of repertoire in future collaborations. Aside from the inevitably high-profile nature of such occasions, there’s the basis of a rapport here that promises future interpretations of considerable stature.

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