Vienna bewilders the Proms
September 11, 2009 by Norman Lebrecht
There was mild bemusement among hard-core concertgoers and after-show drinkers at the end of the Vienna Philharmonic performance of Haydn’s 98th symphony and Schubert’s Great C major under the late-replacement baton of Franz Welser-Möst.
Nothing to do with the playing, which was glorious and impeccable in every respect bar one slightly sour movement fadeout in the Schubert. Nothing to do either with the conductor’s interpretation, which was uncluttered, organic and irresistibly energising.
So what was missing? An encore, for starters. Every travelling orchestra carries a quiver of crowd-pleasers and this one, despite prolonged applause, refused to deliver.
Some listeners mentioned a lack of ‘greatness’ in the performance. That’s exactly what I found most refreshing. Any third-rate conductor can posture the big occasion at the Royal Albert Hall, underlining every fat tune and swaggering through the tempo switches in Haydn and Schubert to make them seem magniloquent and meaningful.
Welser-Möst resisted the temptation to over-adorn. This was not so much a big performance as a collegial conversation over a hotel breakfast table, at which conductor and musicians were speaking the language of Haydn and Schubert as mother’s tongue, able to leave lines hanging in the air, unresolved, for later contemplation.
It was, for me, a memorable performance and one that augurs well for the future dialogue between this conductor and the orchestra when he takes over next year as chief at the Vienna State Opera.
Welser-Möst, who broke his vacation to save the gig when the venerable Nikolaus Harnoncourt called in sick, has not forgotten his rocky beginnings as 20-something music director of the London Philharmonic. Nor has the press in this town, which is forever urging him to prove a point and erase his early embarrassments. It takes moral courage to resist such challenges and do as he did at the Proms – to dare to perform the great classics as an everyday conversation, without pomp or posturing. Just as the masters intended.
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