Vienna Philharmonic / Riccardo Muti Royal Festival Hall
Vienna Philharmonic / Riccardo Muti

Royal Festival Hall, SBC, London

Speak of the Vienna Philharmonic and most music-lovers think of mellowness, unforced virtuosity and a gemutlich approach - meaning "agreeable" or "genial" - to Viennese music. Bruno Walter had mastered it, Karajan, too, but when Riccardo Muti cued Mahler's Fourth at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday night, Vienna seemed as distant as Atlantis. Why? "Mild discomfort" is the phrase that most readily comes to mind.

To be honest, I can think of at least half-a-dozen Mahler performances by London orchestras that were more authentically "Mahlerian" than this showing by the VPO. The opening jog-trot was too fast, the principal first theme too heavy (Muti pulled hard on the reins to cross from one to the other) and phrasing thereafter was prosaic, even a mite jerky. Natural pauses seemed like awkward rests, rustic instrumental solos - the first movement is full of them - were accurate but irritable and the sum effect was of tense efficiency, polished in part but oddly soulless.

Mahler Four's first movement is about wonder, fantasy, nightmare, dream; its narrative potential craves a story-teller's gifts, but Muti let it "happen" without comment or, it seems, particular involvement. The "comfortably moving" second movement was better, the sinister fiddle solos especially, but although later episodes witnessed some lustrous sounds from the full strings, the effect was again impersonal. Likewise in the slow movement, which opened beautifully but failed to maintain momentum. That breath- taking passage half-way through where Mahler ups the tempo in stages, then pulls back as the horns take over (like a child suddenly confronting some wondrous spectacle beyond the brow of a hill) went for nothing, and the string ensemble wasn't always watertight.

The movement's serene close worked fairly well and the finale was sensibly paced but colour and atmosphere were in short supply. Soprano Ruth Ziesak sat by in flowing greys and blacks, flicking the pages of a pocket score until her turn came, then addressing the audience like a sweet-voiced student teacher. She sang best in the closing verse, but the battle was already lost. I rather suspect that Mahler Four is not Muti's piece.

The concert's concise first half was given over to bland reportage of Beethoven's Op 95 String Quartet in Mahler's full-strings arrangement. Needless to say, the orchestra sounded splendid, but the opening Allegro con brio wasn't nearly assertive enough and the song-like Allegretto lacked intensity. The stated purpose of the arrangement is to adapt the music to the dimensions of a specific hall, but bolstered sonorities solve only part of the problem: one really needs to divide violin desks left and right of the rostrum (Beethoven's original is rich in antiphonal interplay), and underline written dynamics that vanish in a mass of sound. Muti did neither, and the thistle-down coda lacked sparkle. The Viennese are great chamber-music players, and the Philharmonic is well-known for spawning distinguished smaller ensembles. But, in trading intimacy for brilliance, Muti and his men (there were no women in the orchestra) gave us plenty of body but no soul.