Music VPO/ Pierre Boulez RFH, SBC, London

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The Independent Culture
London, Prague, Paris, Amsterdam, Boston, New York - all have their orchestras, many of which continue to thrive. And yet actually listening to them often gives the impression of a standardised, trans-continental playing style; technically adept, perhaps, but quite without any real individuality. Not, however, the Vienna Philharmonic.

Sunday's South Bank concert saw Pierre Boulez illuminate the Viennese roots of Joseph Haydn and Gustav Mahler, the former via the last of the "London" symphonies, the latter with a pointedly characterised reading of his "schizophrenic" Fifth. Haydn's London set the style for much that would follow: sweet but never overbearing violins, full-bodied woodwinds, warm-toned brass, impressive ease of delivery and a seasoned mellowness that was both distinctive and inimitable. Even Boulez's characteristic karate chop gestures seemed less angular, more expressive, shaping rather than organising the notes, underlining middle voices but allowing the music to speak for itself.

His chosen layout for the strings polarised "highs" and "lows", with first and second violins bunched together on the left, cellos centre-placed (extending to the right in the Mahler) and violas and double-basses on the right. And yet the sound was nicely homogeneous, the approach quietly confident - apart from the slightest hesitation at the start of the first movement's development.

Still, Boulez made great play with Haydn's witticisms - in the Menuet, for example, at the point where the violins play a forceful up-bow, followed by a brief rest and mischievous little trill. The Trio was played very much con amore, and the Finale with considerable sparkle.

Mahler brought the orchestra up to maximum weight and, although the opening trumpet call didn't measure the first movement's "tread" quite as it should, the strings were glorious and the climaxes deafening. Boulez made a dramatic beeline for the closing pizzicatos (he's invariably at his best when Mahler's scoring is at its most transparent), then lunged at the opening of the next movement with unprecedented ferocity. Here, cellos won the day, especially at the passage underpinned by a quiet timpani roll, but perhaps Boulez under-played the movement's schizoid contrasts. Also, trombones occasionally hogged the limelight.

The Scherzo's nostalgic landler are, of course, home territory for the VPO and Boulez gave the players their heads. But best of all was the ubiquitous Adagietto, a perfectly paced reading, played with a simplicity, sincerity and expressive eloquence that made both good sense and superb music. And how wonderful to hear the Finale's horn call arrive in its wake, not to mention the cheerfully "speeded up" version of the Adagietto's secondary theme and a busy fugato that brings us on track for an exultant coda.

Both here, and in the Scherzo's closing pages, the orchestra gave their all; it was a thrilling display and a moving tribute from one notable composer-conductor to another.

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