Led by Michael Tilson Thomas, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at the penultimate night of the Proms provided an illustrious finale to this year’s excellent programme.
Celebrating some of Vienna’s most famous residents – Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven – the programme exhibited a nostalgia for tradition unfortunately matched by the gender-imbalance of the Vienna Philharmonic (only six women out of 60 players).
The evening started with the regal formality of Brahms’ reworking of Haydn, Variations on St Anthony Chorale (1873). Through its eight brisk variations culminating in a grand coda that slowly draws to a halt before buoyantly arising once more, the piece was performed with a modest elegance by the Vienna Philharmonic.
Compared to his more restrained direction of Variations, Tilson Thomas conducted with greater exuberance during subsequent recitals of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 (1784) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (1811). Developed around the playful trade-offs between ornate piano lines and simpler string themes, the concerto fluctuated between mellifluous harmony and moments of compelling drama.
Accompanied by veteran pianist Emmanuel Ax, the Vienna Philharmonic preserved the impression of Mozart’s restless genius; the music constantly elaborating and modulating its motifs, never quite settling on a mood or dominant key. The performance also emphasised the subtle, sad beauty of the piece’s slower second movement, bringing out a delicacy that was later complimented by Ax’s unscheduled solo rendition of Schubert’s meditative Impromptu D 935/2.
The piano-strings dialogue of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 expanded into a full orchestral conversation during Beethoven’s 7th. Accentuated by a compulsive sense of repetition where phrases are rapidly reiterated from treble to bass to woodwind, Beethoven’s 7th was the most vivacious and rhythmically driven of the three pieces. Similarly to Mozart’s Piano Concerto, the symphony also presented moments of tonal contrast – its exquisite second movement seeming more like a funeral march than the jubilant celebration of life that otherwise typifies the piece. However, it was with joyous verve that the symphony concluded as memorable refrains and pulsating rhythms converged in a thrillingly triumphant crescendo.
With a more ‘polite’ rendition of Brahms preluding a mutable Mozart concerto and a forceful forty minutes of Beethoven, the prom’s pacing was cleverly conceived. But if that all seemed just a bit too expected, Tilson Thomas decided to end the night with the Vienna Philharmonic’s maiden performance of Frederick Delius’ serene tone poem, ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
Featured image: Chris Christodoulou.