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Concert review: Vienna Philharmonic more concened with technique than musical story

By John Terauds on February 27, 2013

The Vienna Philharmonic at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday night (John Terauds photo).
The Vienna Philharmonic at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday night (John Terauds photo).

Most of us know we are influenced by hype, from our choice of underwear to the morning coffee brew. But when someone comes along and says, behold one of the world’s best symphony orchestras, what does that mean?

I couldn’t help asking myself that question at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday night as the storied Vienna Philharmonic performed a programme whose express mission was to show off everything these fine musicians can do.

The capacity house seemed to think it was getting something special, judging from the prolonged ovation at the end of the concert. The orchestra was remarkably tight and balanced. There was a beautiful clarity to its sound.

But for all the technical excellence on offer, the overall musical story was not entirely satisfying.

Part of what made the evening not fully live up to its potential was guest conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who also serves as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.

He is a clear, unaffected leader who was not able to lift the music far off the page during most of the evening.

The programme began with the Symphony No. 6 by Franz Schubert, which he completed in 1818. It is a lighthearted piece filled with clear allusions to bel canto opera. But Welser-Möst kept the musical fun at more of a quick simmer than the necessary fast boil. The conductor also had a tendency to overemphasize the violins when the woodwinds had more interesting things to play.

The overall effect was more overstuffed than lyrical.

Where Schubert represented Old Vienna, the New Vienna came to us via 39-year-old composer Jörg Widmann’s Lied. In this 21st century piece, the composer quotes the sounds of yore in orchestral manoeuvres that fade in and out of focus.

It’s a great concept that showcased the players’ remarkable discipline, but the structure quickly became repetitive, feeling about 10 minutes too long. We did get to hear some remarkably clear and steady high notes and captivating pianissimo passages from the violins, though.

The official part of the programme closed with Richard Strauss’s effervescent tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, first heard in 1895.

Once again, here was a piece tailor-made for any orchestra that wants to show itself off. Fortunately, the Viennese obliged, with a thrilling performance that, to nitpick, was lacking in a bit of loose-limbed fun. But the golden violin sounds in the final string chorus more than made up for that.

Was a Toronto visit by an orchestra billed as one of the world’s finest as special as its billing might promise? Not really. The musicmaking was, ultimately, too self-conscious, more concerned with showing technique than whisking its audience off on a passionate journey.

And, as those of us who regularly attend symphony concerts know, if you start with a strong musical base, the real difference comes with the choice of conductor.

John Terauds

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