It says a lot about Vienna – and about the Tonkünstler Orchestra – that they’re the city’s third orchestra, and yet they’re so damn good! I can’t remember the last time I heard string playing as silky, classy and sensuously beautiful as this. It was a treat for the ears to hear them play Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, most especially in the slow movement, where that opening theme sounded as smooth as you’ll ever hear it: soft hued but still focused, this was sensationally beautiful playing that I won’t forget in a hurry.

The Tonkünstler in Usher Hall © Ute van der Sanden
The Tonkünstler in Usher Hall
© Ute van der Sanden

They put out what today passes for a pretty big band for the concerto (12 first violins), and that made for a magisterially impressive reading of the first movement. I favour historic performance as much as the next man, but there are definitely gains when you hear the concerto played by a full scale symphony orchestra. They made the most of their strengths with a march theme that bristled with confidence, brass and timpani keeping the sound buoyant and propulsive. Angela Hewitt responded with playing that was muscular when necessary but still poetic, at least in the first movement. She had a tendency to push forward that slightly spoiled the end of the Adagio, and her playing of the Rondo was clipped and just a little bit mechanical. I forgave all for her gorgeous encore, though; the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata, which glowed with inner peace and relaxed warmth.

Angela Hewitt © Keith Saunders
Angela Hewitt
© Keith Saunders

Those strings also cast an unexpected central European sheen over Bernstein’s On The Town episodes. It sounded classy and refined here, almost a completely different piece to when it was played recently in this same hall by the Baltimore Symphony. Their Viennese sense of Schwung translated very well, though, and the muted trumpet in the Lonely Town episode showed he could do the business as well as anyone.

The Viennese are only slightly more at home in Sibelius than in Bernstein, but their performance of the Fifth Symphony was every bit as versatile and exciting. That central European colour was there too, casting parts of the symphony in a surprising light. The quartet of horns that open the piece, for example, sounded as though they were echoing through a Wagnerian forest rather than the Finnish tundra, and the strings were perhaps slightly warmer than usual, but they drove the first movement forward thrillingly, climaxing beautifully at the moment where the music of the opening is recalled by a brass section that gleamed like bright gold. Conductor Yutaka Sado showed impressive command of Sibelius’ ebb-and-flow, giving us a first movement that felt unarguably logical, a slow movement that was folksy with a dark edge, and a finale that surged unstoppably towards the thrilling final pages. And then, for their encore, a supercharged performance of Strauss’ Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. What else?

Despite minor misgivings, it would be churlish to reward this any less than five stars for a knockout orchestral performance, one that wouldn’t seem out of place in the much more elevated setting of the Edinburgh International Festival.

*****