Orchestral concerts bookended by Adès and Elgar are nothing new in Britain, but despite both composers being performed with increasing regularity in Vienna over the last few years, this event – to my knowledge – was the first to place them side by side. The powers that be at the RSO Wien and Konzerthaus planned this smartly by programming the accessible violin concerto Concentric Paths, an ideal Adès gateway drug. But in practice things didn’t work out so successfully, and it was a symphonic overture by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, who is better known for his choral music, which stole the spotlight.

Anu Tali, © Kadri Tali
Anu Tali,
© Kadri Tali

The credit here must go to Anu Tali’s precise baton technique and clarity of vision, which led to disciplined playing and an unshowy realization of the work’s musical potential, all without overstating the case for writing which is imitative of Shostakovich and loaded with conventional devices. Her command of detail was impressive and tempi well-judged, particularly in how she eased from the grinding layers of the tutti opening – shades of gunmetal grey here – into a lyrical, more fragile middle section. The RSO’s winds excelled here with delicately floated solos. Tormis cranks up the gritty tectonic plates once again to conclude the work, though to my ear the strings and brass gave the return of this material more character than might have been the case under less attentive direction.

A tremendous pity then, that conducting which began so promisingly lost its footing in the Adès and Elgar. There were some moments of insight and freshness: the first violins lent the third movement of Concentric Paths a curiously modernist edge by producing an electronically-inflected tone which sounded like something cooked up on an IRCAM computer (coming from me, this is a compliment). Coordination of the violin solo and brass at the beginning of the second movement was fiercely accurate. And in the Enigma Variations, ‘Nimrod’ was given an authoritative reading which paid heed to often-neglected inner voices. But elsewhere the direction was erratic. Tali took the Enigma theme at a funereal crawl that was agonizing no matter how sympathetic one felt towards her attempt at breadth, and while the lyrical motivation to give such prominence to the cellos’ counter-melody is understandable, it came at the expense of insensitively drowning out the theme. Other variations were tediously mannered. And large stretches of the Adès which should have slipped down easily were fussy and laboured.

Scheduled violin soloist Leila Josefowicz is heavily pregnant at the moment and had to cancel (making an appearance beyond the call of duty, she gave her last concert only two weeks ago in Washington). This isn’t the first time that Peter Herresthal has stepped in to play the Adès at short notice, but the exposed E-string passagework in the first movement was rather squeaky, and lower down the register his tone was too weak to project effectively. His final movement was much stronger: an expressive, spun-out line at the beginning was produced with a carefully controlled sweetness which carried over well when the phrase began to fragment. Herresthal articulated the sharper angles convincingly, while maintaining continuity of expressive thought, and without forcing anything like an unattractive sound. As with Anu Tali’s conducting, this was well-intentioned and occasionally striking musicianship marred a couple of times too often by inconsistency.