The Vienna Philharmonic playing Haydn and Schubert is what you might call keeping it in the family – an all-Austrian affair – with even the conductor, Franz Welser-Möst (replacing Nikolaus Harnoncourt) returning like the prodigal son from exile in Cleveland.
But when the illustrious Philharmonic play Haydn – and how thoughtful it was to have brought one of his “London” symphonies, No.98 – the presence of a conductor seems almost superfluous. The style’s the thing and “in the family” also means “in the D.N.A”.
To call this playing instinctive, effortless, unassuming, would still go only part way towards explaining how it differs from pretty much any other orchestra’s attempts at making Haydn sound truly “inbred”. Tradition is hereditary, it is passed down from generation to generation in the playing style. The extraordinary lightness of touch from both the famed Vienna strings and their soft-grained woodwind counterparts is something not easily counterfeited – because it’s in the phrasing, it’s in the way the phrases turn with bows barely grazing the strings and rubatos, such as those in the scherzo, felt rather than applied. And in the slow movement whose main theme sounds for all the world like it’s about to morph into “God Save The Queen” the irony was not lost in the playing of it – with reverence, like the handling of luxury goods. Even the finale’s jokes were delivered with a poker face. Was that Welser-Möst or simply the Austrian way?
Strangely, for those of us familiar with Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s unfashionably late-19th century way with Schubert’s 9th Symphony, “Great” it seemed as though he had phoned his performance through to Welser-Möst. From the patrician horns of the opening with their stately alla breve – very much a laid-back four-in-a-bar – through a mighty acceleration into the main Allegro, this was through and through the “traditional” way.
It was all a bit strict at times – with Welser-Möst at his most Prussian – but the balance of sweetness and sternness and sheer exhilaration was well-differentiated in the playing with contrasting themes to the second movement’s minuet-cum-march deliciously soft-spoken and inviting. And those wonderful Viennese refinements like the trombones deftly adding touches of sweet harmony to the scherzo or the rocking beer-garden chorus of woodwinds in the trio section. The Austrian way, for sure. Accept no substitutes.