Classical music: Orchestral wrongs don't make a Rite

Vienna Philharmonic / Kronos Quartet Royal Festival Hall, London
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Vienna Philharmonic / Kronos Quartet

Royal Festival Hall, London

Vienna's greatest orchestra showed definite signs of tiredness at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday night when Seiji Ozawa cued a fat-toned but faceless account of Brahms's First Symphony. Ozawa has, in the past, displayed many virtues, not least an impressive technique and a balletic sense of rhythm; but Thursday's offering was more an accompanied mime- act than a genuine performance, with extravagant rostrum gestures that yielded virtually nothing in the way of colour or musical character. The first movement trudged an uneventful course; the Andante sostenuto delivered bland solos via a velvet-toned conveyor-belt and the finale briefly came into its own only for those accelerating pizzicatos that dominate the first few pages. The players themselves looked thoroughly bored.

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring added insult to injury with botched notes and conspicuous lapses in ensemble, especially around the opening of "The Adoration of the Earth". OK, the first pages of "The Sacrifice" enjoyed some savoury textures, and snorting tubas towards the end of the piece suggested primeval forces at work; but nothing danced; there was no lift to the rhythm, and absolutely no sense of fantasy - just deafening volleys of sound. Beyond The Rite, we were offered a couple of short encores: Stravinsky's Circus Polka (heavy and humourless) and Josef Strauss's "quick polka" Auf Ferienreisen. It goes without saying that, in performing terms at least, Strauss triumphed over Stravinsky; but with five Rites and Brahms Ones to tackle in just six days, it's no wonder that they were happy to rest on their laurels. Such are the hazards of touring.

I had rather looked forward to comparing Ozawa's Rite on Thursday with a slimmed-down version played by Kronos on Sunday, but Stravinsky's estate and principal publisher refused permission for the arrangement to be performed. This, I suppose, is their legal right, although Stravinsky himself didn't object to "arranging" Tchaikovsky, Pergolesi and Bach. As it happens, a thematic connection between the two concerts already existed in that Bartk's 1927 Third String Quartet caused roughly the sort of critical shock-waves that The Rite had sent reeling through music circles some 14 years earlier. Short but definitely not sweet, Bartk Three opens among mysterious spectres and closes to stamping rhythms and dive-bombing cello glissandos.

Perhaps Kronos intended that Bartk should sound as natural as Hungarian folk music, but the Third Quartet needs to communicate more forcefully than it did on Sunday night. The rest of the programme - the last in Kronos's current Festival - spanned the nations with anarchic Phan (Vietnam), hypnotic El Din (Egypt), earthy Jack Body (Bulgaria), seductive Parades (Portugal), abrasive Piazzola (Argentina) and a dreamy folk-song arrangement by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. It was an extraordinary musical buffet, but the best was still to come. After the interval, Kronos took a temporary break and the stage became a Romanian village square where the Motley crew of Taraf de Haidouks sung, shouted and played their hearts out. If there were fiddlers, flautists or accordionists in the audience, they will certainly have learned a thing or two. Cymbalum player Ionaca kept up the pace for three solid hours (he's probably still at it), and when Kronos joined in for the last two numbers, it was plainly just for the ride.