The concert last night with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado had a program change. For some reason, he switched from Beethoven’s Second Symphony to the Fourth. The exposition repeat was observed in the first movement but none of the next. The VPO sound, again, was really quite excellent (horns withstanding) but the subtle harmonic changes in the magical introduction just sailed by (What key are we in?) yet were good enough to “inspire” Mahler in his maiden work of the form.
We had the usual problems with ensemble due to Abbado’s overly-broad beat. There were some tentative entries on occasion, mostly because there were no cues for virtually anything except the “tune.”
The “Adagio” had a good tempo but its primary melody wasn’t given much of a chance to relax and float. The clarinet solos were most expressive and generally well played. The only quibble with Vienna’s woodwinds comes when they attempt “hairpin” dynamics (< >). They tend to let their pitches take on a “wow” hue which seems to be quite out of context in the Classical style.
The “Scherzo” was really moving but too frequently the legato, quarter-note lines were uneven. This too may have been the result of Abbado’s lead or unsureness of the players, or both—hard to say (How much rehearsal time was allotted?).
Abbado bravely went attacca into the finale. A few times, when he finally used his left hand for a shape (not simply mimicking the right), and got it, the music took off! Both the principal clarinet and bassoon managed their speed-of-light solos brilliantly, looking very relieved afterwards.
After intermission, we had the Wagner version of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. The strings were not cut back, the woodwinds were doubled (i.e., four of each), the brass were as written and just(!) one tympanist marshalled sticks (cross-reference below).
This was sound indulgence at its worst: the music took on an enormous bombastic tone, which seemed to delight the crowd but I’m not sure that the composer would have approved.
The opening was taken at a relaxed pace—switching from two- to four-beats-to-the-bar at will. The pizzicati—once started—were mostly together but the inner voices were usually left to fend for themselves. Happily, Abbado managed to keep the pulse the same (quarter note = half note) after the famous transition to the “Allegro ma non troppo,” producing one of the finest moments of the night. Sadly, Abbado put all three trombones on the usual solo line, which was nothing short of repugnant in terms of balance and—insult to injury—often out of tune. Worse still, when the unfairly maligned orchestrator/composer asked all three to play, that marvellous effect was lost.
The “Andante con moto” moved along at a pleasant tempo and began beautifully. Nonetheless, a noticeable lack of inner voice-leading and failure to heed the implications of the harmonic landscape soon had the audience feeling restless.
The “Scherzo” was delivered at a good clip only to have its “Trio” engender a great deal of frustration: for a conductor who lives and breathes Italian opera, this rendition strangely lacked the singing quality of the theme and the contrasting foil of the accompaniment’s crispness. To date, there hasn’t been a single bar where Abbado doesn’t wield his stick—losing it once in a while might help considerably. In sum, he shows about four or five different gestures to the orchestra.
The closing movement flew about like the proverbial bat out of Hell; of course, no repeat and everything ended in a mad frenzy. Is this what the incredibly gifted Austrian had in mind? JWR