If I were to make a list of the musical wonders of the world, the string tremolo of the Vienna Philharmonic would surely feature somewhere near the top. Honed among the lofty peaks of Bruckner’s symphonies and refined by the shimmering banks of so many Blue Danubes, it can run the gamut from a delicate, barely perceptible haze to a full fortissimo wall of immovable velvet. And the pure visual spectacle of the Viennese violins sawing ecstatically away through the climaxes of Bruckner’s Seventh fully matches the aural splendour. 

Riccardo Muti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© Markus Werner

When Simon Rattle was getting to know the Berlin Philharmonic, he would talk repeatedly about that orchestra’s sound, a big solid whoosh bolstered by the Philharmonie’s bold acoustic. Here, in Berlin’s own Goldener Saal, at the first full symphonic concert of a residency at the Konzerthaus, the Wiener showed they can match the Berliner decibel for decibel. But they also offer that characteristic warmth, those individual, tangy winds and noble, expansive brass. 

On this occasion, Riccardo Muti seemed largely happy to let them do their thing, presenting a grand conception defined by the sort of non-interventionist approach that seems increasingly to be the preserve of elder statesmen of the podium with nothing to prove. Admittedly, in the first half, Muti’s impassive direction brought less to a performance of Mozart’s G major Flute Concerto. The orchestra certainly mustered plenty of elegance and grace – the way the oboe gently poked through the string texture at its first entry gave a good clue as to the quality of musicianship on display. The players showed how you can offer lively, witty and engaging Mozart playing within the sort of well-upholstered sound world that it’s easy to dismiss as old-fashioned these days. 

Nevertheless, the soloist, the orchestra’s own Karl-Heinz Schütz – superbly urbane and elegant – often seemed to be straining at the leash, trying to persuade his colleagues to let their hair down a little. The resulting tension was by no means negative, but Schütz seemed at his happiest while rhapsodising in the cadenzas and in his enchanting encore, a dainty account of Arthur Honegger’s Danse de la chèvre

Karl-Heinz Schütz and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Markus Werner

There were no similar tensions after the interval, and the sheer unity of purpose throughout Bruckner's grand score was mightily impressive, as was the technical polish. Right from that opening shimmer and the arrival of the cello line, lovingly cushioned by the brass, one knew that quality was not going to be in short supply. Muti, with minimal movements used to coax and hush, clearly has a great rapport with the orchestra. On the raised stage of the Konzerthaus, though, you immediately noticed the level of rapport between the players themselves, looking relaxed and constantly casting glances between themselves as well as towards the podium. 

Muti’s interpretation revealed itself only gradually. He let the first movement unfold steadily, neither pushing nor dragging, asserting confidently its own sense scale grandeur and scale. The famous Adagio was built up patiently and lovingly, the Scherzo allowed to pound away purposefully. Only in the finale did one long for a bit more of a guiding hand to mould it into more than a series of grand rhetorical gestures. 

Those seeking novelty in pacing, voicing or phrasing will have left disappointed, and I did wonder whether the conductor might have intervened more in bringing detail to the vast sonic canvas, or have done more to tone down the fortissimos that seemed to pile up more and more unrelentingly. But the pleasure in hearing the orchestra on such unbuttoned form, playing with freedom and enjoyment in repertoire they can rightly call their own, is not something I’ll forget in a hurry.