Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1)

Symphony No.98 in B flat
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Franz Welser-Möst. Photograph: Harald SchneiderThe last time I heard Franz Welser-Möst conducting was with the Cleveland Orchestra, at the BBC Proms in 2005, in a disappointingly polite and disengaged Mahler 3. His appearance this year (replacing Nikolaus Harnoncourt), with the Vienna Philharmonic, emphasised the much-lamented absence of any of the recession-gripped American orchestras from the 2009 Proms at the same time as revealing this scrupulous but sometimes rather remote conductor’s inherent warmth and lyricism.

The programme of two Viennese symphonies, Haydn 98 (instead of Harnoncourt’s 97) and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major, is core repertory, or at least you would have thought so. The printed programme’s invaluable “Previously at the Proms” section listed only three outings for the Haydn, the most reticent and personal of the ‘London’ series (93-104). Welser-Möst made his presence felt most strongly in the Adagio, one of the stranger balancing acts of phrasing and fantasy so typical of Haydn, and which Welser-Möst’s sensitivity to detail and dynamics had the audience hanging on every note and nuance. We are now accustomed to a wirier, period sound for Haydn, but the veiled timbre that the VPO achieved gave the music an otherworldly quality that might not have been what Haydn intended but was still hugely attractive. The other movements spoke rather more of the VPO’s unshakeably confident sense of the classical style. The inescapably Viennese coda to the finale with the fortepiano flourish gave great pleasure.

I wonder how many Schubert Ninths I’ve heard where the pace sounds exactly the same for the first two movements, only for the same thing to happen in the last two. It was a measure of the success and stature of Welser-Möst’s performance that he found such a fine distinction between the speeds and characters of each movement (starting with a surprisingly quick horn introduction) and drew out the transparency and originality of the score, which is so different from that of the ‘Unfinished’.

This performance was big on detail (all repeats taken in the scherzo, but not in the outer movements), it projected the full weight of the work right through to the finale, and was distinguished by a rhythmic, propulsive energy. Welser-Möst clearly relished the juxtaposition of the intimate, Lieder-like passages with some of the most barnstorming, public music Schubert ever wrote. We’ve probably all heard one or two performances of this benign, sublime work that anticipate the later marvel of Bruckner and Mahler. This one wasn’t in that legendary, mystical league, but the playing had an opulence and spaciousness that was truly exceptional.

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