Easy-going Rattle on a Viennese roll

Proms 66 & 67 Royal Albert Hall / Radio 3 London
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The Independent Culture
THE VIENNA Philharmonic can sell out any London venue in which it performs, though when the orchestra was last here - in June, with Seiji Ozawa - my colleague Rob Cowan considered their playing nothing special. With Sir Simon Rattle at the helm, however, expectations were particularly high for the VPO's pair of Proms, with queues for returns and Tuesday's programme, with Mahler's Second Symphony, a notably hot ticket.

Unlike Raymond Monelle who reviewed these programmes in Edinburgh last week, I found the rather idiosyncratically selected sequence of Ravel pieces and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony in the first programme as near to perfect as you're going to get this side of heaven and a recording studio. Alborada del gracioso was acutely alert to details, and both here and in the Mother Goose ballet there was some exquisite solo playing. Also a glorious range of string textures, from magical and gossamer to incisively zesty and, of course, full and rich. Does the Vienna Philharmonic have the best string section in the world? It certainly seemed like it on Monday.

La valse may have been a perverse choice, but then only perhaps Rattle could persuade this orchestra to come to Ravel's aid in sending up the Viennese waltz itself so gloriously and yet so disturbingly. The Pastoral Symphony was surely perfect: from the opening exposition repeat with a fresh, but always marvellously subtle, assortment of different emphases from the first time around, to the way Rattle added impact to the finale by refusing to indulge in its grandeur, as well as by shaping it most beautifully. The single Johann Strauss encore, a polka, deliciously showed what had been missing from last Thursday's all-the-Strauss Prom: sheer style.

Rattle's apparently easy-going technique in the Beethoven - sometimes abandoning any semblance of beating time to listen, encourage, point up, or merely adjust - was sometimes carried over into the Mahler: risky, but entirely appropriate here. This democratic approach must be one reason why these players appear to be like him so much; they respond accordingly. The Prom performance of the Resurrection Symphony reflected much of what Monelle noted in Edinburgh. Rattle brought not only theatricality but clarity, muscle and, where necessary, a real rough edge to this music: a perhaps necessary complement to the Viennese players' in-built Gemutlichkeit.

Individual moments, indeed whole passages - such as the pizzicato interlude in the second movement, or the kaleidoscope of emotions experienced in the aftermath of Birgit Remmert's movingly simple account of "Urlicht" - were totally captivating. Yet I wasn't as overwhelmed by this performance as you surely should be: partly due, I think, to a feeling that the momentum wasn't consistently maintained. No problems, though, with the ravishing singing of the soprano Juliane Banse and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, as well as Remmert, in the closing stages.

Full marks to Rattle for encouraging such a large audience to experience the challenge of Gyorgy Kurtg's elliptical, but also eruptively cosmic, Grabstein fur Stephan before the Mahler. This conductor's championship of new music is yet another reason to cherish him.

Keith Potter

Monday's and Tuesday's Proms will be re-broadcast by Radio 3 at 2pm on 13 and 14 Sept respectively