The Vienna Philharmonic’s contribution to the Rest Is Noise festival would have been significant whatever they played, but when their conductor Michael Tilson Thomas mounted the podium, it was to apologise for the fact that they would be making very little noise at all.
This event, he said, would highlight Schoenberg’s reverence for the music of the past, and for the music of Brahms in particular – thus getting to the heart of one of the Modernists’ key discoveries. This was that – far from being a musical ‘conservative' – Brahms was in fact as bold a modernist as any, with his intricate motivic patterns and his rigorous formal experiments.
First we got the oblique homage of Schoenberg’s ‘Theme and Variations Opus 43b’, a late work (written to generate much-needed cash) inspired by Brahms’s Haydn variations. Schoenberg proudly proclaimed it ‘a masterpiece… one of those works that one writes in order to enjoy one’s own virtuosity’. Tilson Thomas described it as a cross between Schubert and Kurt Weil, and that’s pretty much how it came out, with bracingly clear textures thanks to the Vienna Phil’s fabulous woodwind and brass.
Direct homage came with the work which Schoenberg jokingly referred to as ‘Brahms’s Fifth Symphony’, but which actually consisted of his own orchestral transformation of Brahms’s ‘Piano Quartet in G minor’. His original justification for this exercise was (a) that he liked it, (b) that it was seldom played, and (c) that when it was played, it didn’t work because the piano drowned everything else. Yet his achievement was to retain the work’s intimate chamber quality. Under Tilson Thomas’s relaxed baton, the 70-piece orchestra managed to speak at times as though with one eager voice; the Intermezzo had airborne grace, and the Gypsy Rondo – for which Schoenberg did permit himself some licence – bowled boisterously along, powered by trombones, timpani, and high metal percussion.
The lugubriously elephantine Yefim Bronfman was the soloist in the evening’s main work, Brahms’s ‘Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat’, and the meld between soloist and orchestra was perfect. The subtle refinement of Bronfman’s style allowed him to weave ravishing spells in this inspired conversation between instruments, creating the effect of continually advancing or receding perspectives; duetting in turn with the lead cello, oboe, and horn, he gave as definitive a performance of this Olympian work as I ever expect to hear. If only it had been recorded.