First Night: Full house for an untidy performance

Vienna Philharmonic Royal Festival Hall London
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I HAVE yet to attend a Vienna Philharmonic event at the South Bank that is not packed virtually to capacity.

And yet, do the players give a better show than the best of our own? Last night's concert was true to form with a full house on good behaviour. Seiji Ozawa conducted, or should I say gesticulated his way through Haydn's relatively unfamiliar 39th Symphony, one of his so-called "storm and stress" works.

Initial impressions were of a competent band performing well. The first movement starts, hesitates, then starts again - a Haydn witticism that was not lost on Ozawa. A minuet danced and the finale sounded like a chorus of furies, but any of our best orchestras could have done it just as well.

Bruckner's second symphony sounded rather more distinctive, although the pensive opening was oddly lightweight, almost balletic. However, once into his stride Ozawa delivered at least some of the goods. The lyrical second idea allowed us ample helpings of Viennese string tone, most notably from the cellos.

When the arguments start to develop a little later on in the movement the double bases were unmistakably sonorous, but the plucked violins were a little untidy. Ozawa can pace an impressive climax, but not with the sort of burnished sound quality that, say, Bernard Haitink can achieve with the same composer and orchestra.

Best were the running sequences between woodwinds and strings that fall just before Bruckner revisits his opening material. In the slow movement, there is a lovely passage near the beginning where violas answer violins, which came off particularly. The rest was superficially beautiful but too piecemeal and extrovert for a composer who begs stillness and grandeur in equal measure. Again, the pizzicato string playing was unexpectedly untidy: one of the bassists even misjudged his cue.

The scherzo was at its most impressive just before it ended, when brass and timpani are playing flat out. The opening of the finale sounded rhythmically ambiguous but, as with the first movement the second subject was expressively phrased. Ozawa's idiosyncratic viewpoint illuminated this or that individual episode without drawing a secure picture of the symphony's architecture - although, to be fair, Bruckner himself went on to do a lot better.

No one could have underlined the point with greater clarity than Beethoven, whose Egmont Overture served as a welcome - and very well played - encore. The audience greeted the orchestra with the expected volleys of applause, but I have been to many concerts by London orchestras where it would have been far better deserved.