Classical: Weber is earthbound, but Dvorak is divine

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THERE WERE plenty of celebrities in the audience at the Vienna Philharmonic's Tuesday night concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Charles Mackerras representing the conducting contingent. Both maestros have done sterling work with Austria's premier orchestra but, given a blindfold and no programme, would they honestly have recognised the VPO from what they were hearing? I occasionally had cause to wonder, though conductor Mariss Jansons seemed in rude health, dancing on the rostrum like a man half his age and cuing some of the most resplendent orchestral climaxes London has heard this season.

The concert opened with Weber's "Oberon Overture" and a touch of caprice around the elfin woodwind figurations that fly past soon after the opening horn solo. If you listened hard to the strings you could hear that inimitable blend of wire and warmth, the odd subtle slide and the characteristic unanimity in long phrases. But there was no real swell to the melody lines, and the closing bars lacked panache. Both here and in the elevated routine of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, small lapses in ensemble proved mildly distracting, though Strauss's sunrise sequence prompted both an impressive crescendo and some punishing wallops on the tympani.

The rest of Zarathustra was high on energy, weak on tonal bloom, and at its best in the lilting "Dance Song" that dominates the second half. The slow fugue representing scientific research sounded stiff-jointed, but the headlong rush towards the tolling midnight belt marked a sudden rush of adrenalin. Strauss's quiet, equivocal ending was marginally spoiled by imprecise instrumental chording, and the audience's fairly muted response confirmed that the performance hadn't really worked.

Things improved dramatically after the interval. Here, the lack of interpretative incident that had kept Weber and Strauss earthbound was more than compensated for with an occasionally hyperactive account of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. Best by far was the second movement, which suggested a sort of fairytale narrative, all play and pathos. The "Allegretto grazioso" was unexpectedly constrained, but I loved the softened return of the main strings theme and the swift, throwaway ending.

Jansons and his players thundered through the finale at top speed; there were mean horn trills and mellow cello work, but rather less light and shade than I would have liked.

The audience roared its approval. Two short encores rounded things off: a fast but uninflected Dvorak "Slavonic Dance" (No 15) and a rumbustious "Thunder and Lightning Polka", with wood-blocks providing a few added lightning strikes. Here, at last, the VPO sounded truly itself.