Don Quixote – fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character, Op.35
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Tamás Varga (cello) & Christian Frohn (viola)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 11 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The second of the Vienna Philharmonic’s two BBC Proms this season proved to be an absolute highlight. Zubin Mehta (born 1936), now associated with the Vienna Philharmonic for nearly fifty years (and almost as long with the Israel Philharmonic of which he is Music Director for Life), and one of most-complete of conductors, began this particularly attractive programme with an addition to it, Webern’s Passacaglia, which served as an ‘overture’ (always welcome) and also a pertinent link to the similar-form finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Furthermore, although scheduled for other VPO/Mehta appearances this summer, that the Webern wasn’t originally included in the Proms Prospectus seemed curious.
Anton Webern (1883-1945) considered Passacaglia, which he completed in 1908, as his official Opus One and an indication of his desire to continue with musical tradition; yet his posthumous reputation is that he left a blank sheet of (manuscript) paper for succeeding boundary-breaking composers (Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen…) to begin again, and given the severity of his later musical thinking, the Passacaglia, all ten minutes of it, and for a large orchestra, seems with hindsight an extravagance.
Yet it is also tightly organised and concise (23 variations) and as early as the fifth pizzicato of the eight that introduce the work (here rather lost in audience hubbub, just as the closing bars competed with electronic interference) there is a harmonic disturbance that signals the anguished, shadowy and music-at-breaking-point entanglements that emerge during Passacaglia’s short if defining course, the listener aware of the perfectionist tailoring of Webern’s writing in terms of structure that is overlaid by music that is deeply emotional, whether in sweet radiance or emotional rages, a balancing act that Mehta and the VPO managed with expertise and perception.
It was Richard Strauss’s intention that his orchestral setting of Cervantes’s Don Quixote feature principals of an orchestra; thus from the Vienna Philharmonic the main soloists were cellist Tamás Varga as the Don (playing from the concerto position) and violist Christian Frohn (as Sancho Panza) from his usual desk. Mention should also be made of Albena Danailova (leading for this work only, otherwise Volkhard Steude was the Concertmaster); she may not as yet “belong to the association of the Vienna Philharmonic”, but she surely will soon.
Mehta, conducting from memory (as throughout the concert), was in easeful control of this intricate score, the VPO a large chamber ensemble, balance and detailing well-nigh-perfect, antiphonal violins opening up dialogue, the opening reflective and ‘once upon a time’ and always at-one with the various extraordinary episodes without underlining them or losing contact with Strauss’s web of sounds. As Don Quixote, Tamás Varga was more a Fournier than a Tortelier or a Rostropovich; if he was occasionally overshadowed by Christian Frohn, who offered a more-vivid narrative, Varga’s playing was innate.
This was a collaboration of musicians who know this music so intimately, nicely visualised when Mehta dropped his baton and Varga deftly retrieved and returned it to the conductor in (as it were) a single breath, Mehta’s left-hand equally adept as to where the point of collection was!
Brahms’s Fourth Symphony received a gloriously old-fashioned expansive performance, quite nostalgic in a first movement that would have welcomed a little more impetus and, in the coda, overt tragedy; yet, from first to last, this was a compelling performance guided by intrinsic, mannerism-free musicianship for a rich-sounding, powerful and closely-observed account leavened by pastel shading and a dynamic variety that avoided seeming micro-managed. If the woodwinds tended to lose out the strings (at full strength) and horns (occasionally too prominent), there was a warmth and unification to this performance that required nothing new-fangled to justify it, Mehta reserving the greatest passion for the finale.
Two quintessential Viennese encores followed, both polkas, incomparably played, Joseph Hellmesberger senior’s Light-Footed and Johann Strauss II’s Tritsch-Tratsch – during the latter, Mehta shouted “accelerando”, the VPO finding a keen joie de vivre to complete a superb concert.
Mehta and the VPO will be off to Japan, China and South Korea, and he and the Israel Philharmonic plan to visit Spain; Mehta’s future plans also include conducting “Die Fledermaus” at Berlin State Opera and “Tannhäuser” at La Scala, but London, aside from tours, seems not on his radar … a pity!