Arts: Classical - Birthday performance gets a horsewhipping

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VIENNESE CONCERT-GOERS are a fairly conservative bunch, and it doesn't take much to shock them. On Sunday at the palatial Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (familiar to TV viewers for its celebrated New Year's Day concerts), a zealous percussionist from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe invaded Haydn's Military Symphony by - and get this! -thrashing a riding- crop against a rubber mat from the back seat of a Ford Granada.

"Is this what they call `authentic' performance?" I thought to myself. The conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt would tell you that it is; that Haydn's intention was to represent the army's attempts at forcing potential recruits to join up. And if it takes a Granada mat to help realise the desired effect, then who am I to complain? Whip and bass drum had made their mark on Haydn's Allegretto. You could positively feel those Viennese lips twitch and hairs bristle - so much so, that when the warring factions returned for the last movement, boos cut through the cheers. Harnoncourt reappeared for a brief historical explanation. It could probably never happen here.

The occasion was Harnoncourt's 70th birthday concert. The hall was packed to capacity, and it seemed as though all of musical Vienna were in attendance. The reception afterwards was hardly less eventful. Thomas Hampson delivered a 15-minute appreciation entitled "The Resonance of a Man in Sonata Form" (guests "without German" were handed a part-translation). The Arnold Schoenberg Choir sang a "mythological fugue" based on Harnoncourt's name, and when the cake was finally wheeled in, Cecilia Bartoli and Marjana Lipovsek pealed loud above the throng in "Happy Birthday". There was a CD presentation (clandestine recordings of birthday tributes by some of Harnoncourt's most noted collaborators); the concert itself included an unscheduled "extra" whereby the violinist Gidon Kremer unravelled flavoursome varieties of "Happy Birthday" in the styles of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and the Gypsy fiddlers.

A tour guide had told me that a local poll voted Karajan, Carlos Kleiber and Celibidache as favoured baton- wielders of the post-war period. "They have one thing in common," she said. "They're all charismatic."

Harnoncourt's gifts are more Socratic than charismatic. He will look at a score, scrub it clean of tradition's detritus, then ring the changes with his players. Come the performance, it's as if you're hearing the music for the first time. We've already heard Harnoncourt do this sort of thing with Haydn symphonies on Teldec CDs, but his escapades among the more folk-like pages of Bartk and Dvork are new.

Sunday night's programme had Bartk's Magyar-style Divertimento for strings as its centrepiece. Harnoncourt's Bartk is a dancing presence, translucent of texture and, in closing pages of the scary Molto Adagio, bewitchingly beautiful. You could sense earth in the mix, as well as an uncharted spirituality, but the "mock minuet" that suddenly appears near the close of the finale (a joke that rivals the best of Haydn's) rather missed its target. Not, however, Dvork's second set of Slavonic Dances, which stamped, pranced and sang, always "of a piece" and provided with a generous supply of textural revelations - especially with respect to Dvork's woodwind writing.

Some months ago I asked Harnoncourt whether he had ever considered recording the Slavonic Dances. He told me that he would love to record them, but that one needs to play them "honestly", not merely as "encore" pieces.

Sunday's performances confirmed that laudable intention, and I hope Teldec takes the cue. It was if these delightful perennials had suddenly shifted in status from "light music" (the usual category) to "symphonic scherzo". And still they danced, like everything else under Harnoncourt's direction - from a Biber Battle and a Bach cantata to Schumann and Johann Strauss. I hope I'm dancing as happily at 70.