Overall, this concert was very frustrating. It was my first time seeing Herbert von Karajan in person. His physical presence is one of a short, hobbling, tired old man. He walked out with Krystian Zimmerman then literally peered around the corner of the piano lid to show the audience he had made it to the podium.
The Schumann was generally well played by the soloist but there was some out-of-tune French horn contributions and it was usually “untogether” in the spots that are always difficult for the conductor (famously the “Allegro vivace’s” rhythmic “traps”). Still, it was an amazing experience—the reason for which can be expressed in one word: pride. Collectively, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra plays as if every member is totally convinced that this is the world’s best orchestra. The strings are truly exceptional; all of the principals lead with their bodies, helping the ensemble—every section-player digs into his [no “her” here] part as if he is the concertmaster! The winds play with great expression if not consistency of pitch.
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was the second half. Here was the opportunity to see Karajan work seul. It was really just more of the same: almost together and an overwhelming wash of sound.
He used a few tricks such as employing two tympanists in a few climactic spots, then added a tam-tam to the BIG MOMENT—of course that was probably unintentionally omitted by the composer; all such obvious mistakes should, of course, be corrected. Hmm, one wonders what changes to the conducting Tchaikovsky might have wished ….
Four curtain calls were needed to satiate the crowd’s demonstration of pleasure.
The frustration stems from this: Karajan is a singular phenomenon and both the musicians and their admirers know it. There is no way they are going to give (or receive) a poor performance with the most powerful maestro on the planet at the helm. And so they seem to perform both because and in spite of him—the rapt audience is just glad to witness a Karajan “event.” He is the exact opposite of Rafael Kubelik who works tirelessly for the music and eschews self-indulgence (no orchestration “improvements” required). The rewards for that sort of diligence do not appear to be as great—a real dilemma for vrai artistes.
One wonders why it is important to strive for musical excellence when it too frequently appears that the majority of listeners are only interested in the sound, a theme that will recur, no doubt, in the concerts to come. JWR