Arnold Schoenberg rarely forms the backbone of orchestral concerts in either of his two homelands, and in an ideal world there would be more concerts like this, particularly in Vienna. We should however also remember that when it came to his music Schoenberg was concerned as much with the quality as with the quantity of performances, and while Péter Eötvös’s conducting may not have met the master’s uncompromising standards the RSO Wien contributed some committed and lyrical playing which took off much of the rebarbative edge that has limited place in Schoenberg’s writing.

Hilary Hahn, © Peter Miller
Hilary Hahn,
© Peter Miller

There were some excellent moments in the Fünf Orchesterstücke: the trombones and bassoons spotlessly precise and yet sounding as if from a distance in no. 1; the intimacy to the chamber-like no. 2; and a not too neurotic no. 3. Tempi had a loose feel, which worked better than I would have imagined, but Péter Eötvös’s limited involvement elsewhere led to some muddiness. The fluidity which leaves no blade of grass unaccounted for, as in Boulez’s Schoenberg, was missing here. With a loud overall dynamic it was also hard to believe that this was the toned-down 1949 version of the score.

Some balance problems also affected the violin concerto, but my main reservation was a broader lack of sensitivity: under Eötvös’s direction, the orchestra didn’t seem to pay much notice to Hilary Hahn’s reading of the work and were only fitfully responsive to her in general. A shame, as her recording of this violin concerto with Esa-Pekka Salonen deserves to be regarded as a landmark interpretation of a composer whose interpretative difficulties cannot be underestimated. A performance without self-expression was unthinkable for Schoenberg and yet he was prone to dismissing the results, to use his own wording, as ‘deviating’ from his ‘direct orders’. During his lifetime even ensembles he admired greatly, such as the Kolisch Quartet, didn’t escape uncriticized.

But I think Hahn may have pleased: sharp edges were smoothed off while remaining true to Schoenberg’s angular articulacy, each phrase was a poetic idea – in the Schoenbergian sense – without being too self-contained, and the work’s technical demands were met with unshowy ease – no mean feat for one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire which, according to the Schoenberg anecdote you choose to believe, requires either a sixth left hand finger or a lengthening of the fourth. Hahn stopped short of embracing Schoenberg the stylistic post-Romantic – her tone row, as Schoenberg wished, was too understated for that – and knowing this score in all its serial detail, I could only admire her understanding of the structural strides Schoenberg makes with the twelve-tone technique in this concerto, some of them looking forwards, some back.

Schoenberg once wrote that if he had to conduct his violin concerto he would be ‘forced to study it for four weeks eight hours a day’, and it was debatable as to whether Péter Eötvös had been that disciplined, with the Haupstimmen (leading or primary voices) which lay in the orchestral score not always clear. His conducting of Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet, Op. 25 was much better: Schoenberg’s rather grandiose treatment can often seem overwrought, almost as if spoofing the original, but Eötvös kept things low-key, preserving a chamber-music sensibility. But again I worried about transparency. Commenting in bullet point brevity about his reasons for orchestrating what he called ‘Brahms’s Fifth’, Schoenberg once wrote: ‘1. I love the work. 2. It’s not played often. 3. The louder the pianist plays the better he sounds, and that drowns out the strings. 4. Just once I wanted to be able to hear everything, and now I’ve achieved that.’

In this performance the cello line came through most prominently, with fervent playing not just from the RSO’s cellos but also the lower end of their woodwind section. The first violins were also strong, but perhaps too strong, as the original inner voices got a bit blurred. The brass could actually have been louder, but given the oom-pah treatment Schoenberg gives Brahms’s third movement Trio I’m not sure this wasn’t a blessing. Tempi were sensible in the first three movements but Eötvös took the last movement at a Hungarian gallop, which worked to thrilling effect when he conducted the RSO in Kodaly’s Háry János suite last year, but left the winds gasping for breath in this performance. The flute flutter-tonguing Schoenberg scores is difficult at the best of times, and the RSO’s principal made a valiant effort despite being doomed to failure. The music still felt driven even when the tempo had inevitably started to drag. But despite ending unstably there had been much strong playing in this concert – and I hope, perhaps in vain, that we might hear more Schoenberg at the Musikverein in the future.