It’s interesting, not to say alarming, how variable the great Vienna Philharmonic can be.
Give them a Brahms Hungarian Dance – as Lorin Maazel did here for an encore – and they’ll sweep you off your feet, violins gorgeously throaty down on the G-string, stylistic hesitations teased and tantalising to the manner born. But ask them to play Debussy’s La Mer and they begin to sound like amateurs.
Beethoven should be a safe bet, you would think, and for the most part the 6th Symphony “Pastoral” was richly, beguilingly played. But it wasn’t the playing that was the problem. Lorin Maazel, now a sprightly 80, has a long and illustrious musical pedigree but his still exceptional technical facility and photographic memory does not extend to his taste and judgement and what began as an engagingly old-fashioned, amply sounded, account of the Pastoral eventually ground to a halt – heavy and portentous. I turned to my guest and commented: “I thought the Bruckner was tomorrow night?”
Beethoven’s opening movement is subtitled “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country”. But how had we arrived? By air-conditioned limo? There was nothing airy or open-aired about Maazel’s delivery of the movement; the string sound was gorgeous but urbane, a country excursion recalled from the comfort of a luxury mansion. Corners were invariably turned with a gentle application of the brakes – another outmoded Maazel mannerism – and even the birdsong of the second movement (especially the mellifluous solo clarinet) was a little too “schooled”.
But in the aftermath of a storm resounding enough to suggest that hurricane Lorin had just blown in, Maazel completely subjugated the joy of the work to narcissism and presided over a “Shepherds’ Hymn” that was inexplicably slow and leaden. No fervour and certainly no uplift.
And so it continued. The last time I heard the Vienna Philharmonic play Debussy’s La Mer was under Gergiev. I thought it was simply ill-prepared. But Maazel faired even worse, his pedantic exposition of the score meeting with hesitancy and insecurity in the orchestra – and one moment of complete disintegration in the middle of the first movement.
No orchestra or conductor could make the dawn sequence of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2 anything other than ravishing, so perfect is the scoring. I’ve heard sexier accounts, it has to be said, but at least it shimmered brilliantly. Next time, though, a big Strauss tone poem – Alpine or Domestica - might serve Maazel and the orchestra better.