Saturday, 21 February 2009


19/02/09, Royal Festival Hall.

2hrs 10mins. Haydn, Symphony No 104 (the London); Bruckner, Symphony No 9. I was too tired for this. Even the Bruckner couldn't keep me awake.

The Vienna Phil play with awesome precision, which was if anything a drawback in the Haydn which seemed just too polished, too perfect. It's polite music anyway. D said she wanted more "passion". I kept yearning for the sound of a period band, scraping away, living dangerously but with more edge, to bring the music alive.

Mehta conducted with remarkably economic gestures. When he came on at the start and when he acknowledged applause at the end his bow was barely more than a nod of the head. On the other hand, while we were in the rear stalls A was sitting in the choir seats behind the orchestra, as a result of a muddle over tickets, and said his face was animated and lit up as he cued the band. There were 52 (I think) musicians, only one woman (first violins, right at the back). They were all in white tie, which added to the sense of formality.

The upside of the orchestra's discipline was that you could hear every note and some of the effects were breathtaking. There's a series of dramatic pauses in the scherzo (around six, some in the strings, some in the woodwind): an upward swoop, and then... nothing. Executed perfectly.

There's a beautiful passage at the start for the bassoon, playing along with all the strings. And in the slow movement there's a passage in which the first violins carry the melody while the second violins dance a staccato figure around it: again, perfect.

Mehta began the second half with a tribute to Christopher Raeburn. I'd never heard of him, but he was a veteran record producer who started out with Decca way back in 1954 and according to Mehta was a great friend and fan of the Vienna Phil. Mehta said he "and the orchestra" had been saddened to learn of his death "when they arrived in London that morning". So the band had travelled from Vienna, where they'd given a concert the night before, then presumably rehearsed at the RFH and finally performed: a long day, and a knackering one. They were due in Paris the following evening.

"We would just like him to know," Mehta said of Raeburn, "we are with him in spirit and would like to dedicate this heavenly music to him."

And it is heavenly, at least at the start: a lovely slow string build up to a great brass crescendo meant to sweep you away. At which point the man on my left, clearly unmoved, opened his programme!

It has some fine effects. In the second (of three) movements there is some spectacular driving "machine" like music, interspersed with quieter passages featuring a little figure on the timps which is then taken up by the clarinet and (second time) by the flute. But the machine music came back six or eight times, confirming me in my prejudices about Bruckner: namely, that he is noisy and repetitious. In the tuttis you can see the woodwind blowing away fit to bust, but you can't hear them: with a full brass section blaring away their contribution seems pointless. Once more I found myself wondering what it would sound like with just 18th century orchestral forces instead of the 91 (?) players on stage (four women this time: two violins, a cello and, I think, a clarinet).

D was satisfied that she'd finally got her passion. S's friend J and J's friend Sheila were sitting with us and were full of enthusiasm. By the end I'm afraid I'd drifted off. Mehta, much more animated this time, looked totally drained. There was a special round of applause for the tuba. Then I lost sight of what was happening because all the people in front of us had decided to give it a standing ovation.

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