Thursday, 5 September 2019

Prom 61: Ultimately, rather uninvolved - the Vienna Philharmonic in Dvořák and Korngold

Prom 61 - Leonidas Kavakos, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms 2019 (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 61 - Leonidas Kavakos, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
BBC Proms 2019 (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Dvořák The Noonday Witch, Korngold Violin Concerto Dvořák Symphony No. 9 in E minor; Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada;BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 4 September 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Vienna Philharmonic's second 2019 Prom saw them in a rather different mood in a programme full of Czech links.

Prom 61: The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) and Andrés Orozco-Estrada in Dvořák's The Noonday Witch, Korngold's Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos (violin) and Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E minor on Wednesday 4 September 2019 at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

If the previous night’s VPO concert with Haitink [see Colin Clarke's review] had been chalk, this was the cheese. Haitink provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience, supremely elevating tinged with the sweet pain of parting and presenting an orchestra unlike any others, almost superhuman in its execution; Orozco-Estrada brought a far more workaday experience, far more fallible, still recognisably the Vienna Philharmonic, but tired (they do have a hectic schedule, in fairness) and, ultimately, rather uninvolved.

The relationship between the evening’s composers and America is one theme (Dvořák’s “New World” and his sojourn in America needs no introduction; neither does Korngold’s association with Hollywood). There is a Czech-like thread though as well, as Korngold was born in Brünn, which is, today, the astonishingly beautiful Czech city of Brno.

Prom 61 - Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms 2019 (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 61 - Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms 2019 (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
The Colombian-Austrian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, principally known in the UK via his association with the London Philharmonic, began unsteadily, with a retake of the opening (how often does that happen to he VPO, I wonder?), an unsure start to a rather unsteady concert.
After that, the performance was generally neat and tidy if somewhat uninvolving – a pity, as Dvořák’s 1896 tale is rather deliciously painted in sound: a woman foolishly threatens her misbehaving child with the noonday witch, who appears at second calling. When the father of the family comes home, he finds his wife unconscious and his child dead. Taken from a dark folk ballad by K. J. Erben, Dvořák’s score gives plenty of scope for gripping story telling, but the performance here only attained a modicum of excitement, and the narrative potential felt largely unrealised. The VPO on autopilot is still worth its weight in gold, one might argue, and there were some lovely solo contributions, particularly from the clarinet, but ultimately this was a missed opportunity.

And so to the Violin Concerto, Op. 35 by Korngold. Written in 1945, this is a late-ish work originally intended for Bronislaw Huberman (although it was Heifetz who premiered it); it utilises a number of themes from Korngold’s film scores. An aching, ascending figure haunts the first movement, its emotionally charged demeanour a nod perhaps to the world of Zemlinky (with whom Korngold studied at a very early age). Lush doesn’t even start to cover the scoring, the Vienna Philharmonic providing a gorgeous bath of sound over which Kavakos’ violin sang, just a slight edge to stop full sugar overload and with perfect tuning in the higher register (a region in which Korngold often places his soloist). If the central Romance wonders, it is pleasant enough. The finale is sheer fun, and contains a lovely little moment in which the solo violin duets with the leader (here Volkhard Steude). No doubting Kavakos’ virtuosity, particularly in his encore: Tarrega’s Recuerdas de la Alhambra, arranged by Ruggeiro Ricci.

One does wonder how much rehearsal went into the “New World” Symphony performance. Were those woodwind chords of the opening balanced? A bracing tempo led to an exhilarating experience in the first movement (exposition repeat honoured), yet the slowing for the more lyrical material felt somewhat forced. Telling that the brass chord that opens the famous Lento was not absolutely together, although the famous cor anglais solo was a wonder (strangely not credited in the orchestral list: it was Wolfgang Plank). There were some slightly untidy corners of ensemble later on, also. One moment of string magic, on which Orozco-Estrada could have justifiably lingered just that touch longer was the movement’s point of illumination. The Scherzo was the finest movement, although whereas the brass had been almost impossibly accurate the previous night, there was a corker of a split in the horn unison passage; were several significant misses elsewhere, too, including the solo in the finale. Despite moments of beauty, particularly from the woodwind, that finale, too, failed to completely take off.

An encore: Josef Strauss’ polka-schnell Ohne Sorgen!, Op. 271, complete with orchestral shouts of laughing ‘Hah’s” (encouraged from the audience, also!). A touch of New Year’s magic, and the clear highlight of the evening, before the VPO heads off to Lucerne.
Reviewed by Colin Clarke

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Elsewhere on this blog
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