JWR Articles: Live Event - Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt) - September 17, 2010

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

3.5 3.5

When great lengths are needed

How wonderful to once again share the same acoustic space as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s been a while since Herbert von Karajan brought the Viennese musicians featuring Anne-Sophie Mutter to Lucerne (cross-reference below).

By far the finest overall string playing heard in 2010 was the aural highlight of the evening. The basses were outstanding: clear, concise and competent with not a bit of mud ever in evidence. The first violins brought their deservedly-famous shimmering, pitch-surety to bear, breathing life and vigour into every bow. The seconds and violas chowed down on the inner rhythmic voices with such authority and verve that they very nearly overshadowed their more melody-prone colleagues. The cellos moved readily between bass-line support and thematic development with free-flowing ease. Merci mille fois!

What a pity guest conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt was at the controls. With such a gifted instrument before him, he must have had Beethoven wriggling in his grave with the short-sighted, musically questionable decision to rob so many note lengths of their intended value.

In the A Major Symphony, a tradition of short-changing the quarter notes in the “Poco sostenuto” (those few who do render the required length likely sound odd to modern audiences) has become the norm. But if other types of notes are given their correct “due,” why ignore these (especially given the specific “sustained” hint from the composer)?

Yet that oversight paled in comparison to the treatment of the pairs of repeated quarters in the second measure of the motivic figure that permeates the mesmerizing (well, it can be) “Allegretto.”

Call the police! There’s been a robbery: the second of the two quarters was consistently whittled down to an anaemic state, leaving much of the movement with nowhere to go. The players couldn’t be faulted, professionally doing as they were told, trying to make the most of these miserable lines when fully formed ideas were wanted (all the better to balance the arid vivacity that informs so much of the movements found on either side (“Vivace”; “Presto”).

Harnoncourt also failed to rein in the woodwinds in the “Presto,” setting up a curious dichotomy of just-right rhythm (the slurred repeated half-note/quarter-note figure) of the strings being erroneously echoed by the reeds and flutes (too early to the quarters).

All of that said, there was enough energy, effort and enthusiasm during the symphony to justify the generous applause from the capacity audience, but Beethoven’s magic was in no danger of igniting a riot of admiration from either side of the podium. Absolutely startling was an early fortissimo trumpet entry in the “Finale” that simultaneously soiled the music and proved how human we all can be.

The two-work program began with a curious reading of Beethoven’s C Major Piano Concerto by Lang Lang.

The technical wizard was of the same mind as Harnoncourt in offering affectations that left a personal stamp but were at variance with the musical intent. (For Lang Lang: overdone accents in the “Largo” and near-silly grace notes in the “Allegro con brio”; Harnoncourt seemed intent on leading up to the major cadential points and never truly resolving them—oddly backing away like touching a hot stove).

The majority of the pianist’s performance was so soft that a true balance with the orchestra was seldom realized. All of that coy reticence instantly vanished with the lengthy first cadenza. Now the music was explosive, powerful and lyrical with weight—as if he’d been saving himself for the unaccompanied moments of seul rather than sharing the glory with his colleagues.

Even the magnificent back-and-forth conversation with the clarinet as the slow movement wound down seemed just an exchange of words instead of emotion, thought and art.

No worries: the talent is there and the career young—all things in their time. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

If it's a close-by, spectacular view of the city you're after, then click here to learn more about the current plans for Château Gütsch Hotel. The 1860 landmark is getting a facelift after a remarkable past. JWR

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Conductor - Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Piano - Lang Lang
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 - Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 - Ludwig van Beethoven
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Lucerne Festival Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
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