Tradition has it in Vienna that while the Wiener Philharmoniker ring in the New Year to the strains of the Blue Danube and other Strauss family hits, the Wiener Symphoniker give festive performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Konzerthaus. The contrast between light music and more substantial fare was particularly pronounced this year, with the Symphoniker’s chief conductor designate Philippe Jordan leading a performance so lean and mean that ‘Ode to Austerity’ would not be an inapt description. I sometimes wondered if he was being too inflexibly joyless.

Philippe Jordan, © Johannes Ifkovits
Philippe Jordan,
© Johannes Ifkovits

The slow tempi and stern mood were sustained right up until the fugato at the end of the final movement, and though Jordan kept the musicians sounding on edge throughout, the effect was less of a coil being tightened, to make the release all the sweeter, than of stiffness and claustrophobia. The playing in the first two movements seemed particularly choked, with a dynamic range stuck between mf and f and Jordan demonstrating that allowing no pause for breath in the scherzo is twice as taxing at a deliberate pace than at a tempo which zips along. I should add that none of the conducting felt like a failure, and Jordan got a good response from the orchestra despite the rigidity of his approach. I just felt unmoved by what seemed to be severity with no significance beyond itself.

This was a shame, as the Symphoniker turned in a polished and committed performance. The cello section has impressed me of late, and the burnished sound of their fourth movement recitative, and the litheness and mellow sonority to their introduction of the Ode to Joy theme – not easy for cellos and basses in that low register – all worked effectively. The winds also did well to battle against such large string forces, seemingly without the advantage of doubling (the norm in Vienna since Mahler’s time). The Singakademie, the in-house chorus of the Konzerthaus, also put in a spirited effort, with a few moments of tenor strain passing quickly enough and a well-blended and flexible full choral sound elsewhere. I’m not sure about this performance, but in previous years the Beethoven 9 concerts have been open to people who want to try out for the semi-professional Singakademie; if that was the case here then the chorus’ contribution was all the more impressive for being sung from memory and having no trace of a ‘come and sing’ performance to it. The soloists were something of a mixed bunch: bass Günther Groissböck gave the standout performance, with impressive strength across his register and excellent top notes – a Wotan to watch out for, potentially. Tenor Nikolai Schukoff added some much-needed lightness to the proceedings and mezzo Monika Bohinec, though making less of an impression, was solid. The only disappointment was soprano Ricarda Merbeth, who sang flat with a large wobble.

With Europe in for another tough year, this was a Beethoven 9 for our times. But with Philippe Jordan leading a performance not so much sobering as lacking in sensitivity, his musical priorities seemed as questionable as the current political fashion for austerity.