The penultimate night of the 2017 BBC Proms saw the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic bring its revered golden glow to a staple diet of Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. While the richness of the very first notes of Brahms' Haydn Variations was enough to make one lean back and sigh with delight, the joyous aesthetic of their musical voice only went part way to masking an otherwise stolid approach to the evening's music until the very last movement of the Beethoven.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Vienna Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Michael Tilson Thomas' approach to Beethoven's ebullient Seventh Symphony was largely in the spirit of the great Beethoven traditionalists such as Daniel Barenboim. The orchestra's sound was a big one, with strings numbering fifty and a doubled-up horn section. Tempi were stately and indulgent depths of rubato were permitted at key punctuation marks in the work's narrative. After a stately introduction, the first movement relaxed into a leisurely stride which, while allowing us all to bask in the glories of this wonderful orchestra's voice, offered little vivacity. Tilson Thomas was an animated figure on the rostrum, crouching and gesturing with great energy, but this was rarely translated into genuine musical excitement and one had the sense at times that he was offering little more than beating time.

The Scherzo was similarly ponderous, especially in the Trio, where an air of monumentality crept in to the brass and timpani fanfares accompanied by huge, rather mannered pull backs in tempo. The second and fourth movements fared a little better. The slow movement was relatively forward looking and had a greater sense of its overarching direction in it than the first. The finale finally found some energy as it zipped towards the coda, and with the meticulous ensemble and rich sound of the orchestra we had a glimpse of what might have been on another night. This was aesthetically pleasing Beethoven, with a great deal to admire in internal woodwind dialogues and velvety string textures, but not the sound of a man who revolutionised music.

Emanuel Ax, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Vienna Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Emanuel Ax, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Vienna Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra for Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major, written for his student Barbara Ployer in 1784. Perhaps with less expectation of thrilling excitement than the Beethoven, the simple elegance of the interaction between Ax and orchestra was allowed to shine. With the string sections reduced by a desk each and joined only by pairs of oboes and horns, textures were leaner and articulation softer of touch. Ax played with refined legato and obvious high class even in the absence of any particular opportunities for virtuosic fireworks in this concerto and the composer's own cadenzas. Tilson Thomas allowed the music to speak for itself rather than offering any dramatic personal spin on it, making for a pleasingly spacious slow movement and delicately fizzing finale. Ax's Schubert Impromptu encore was wonderfully intimate even in this cavernous hall.

Brahms' Variations on a theme by Haydn, surprisingly not heard at The Proms for a decade, reflected much of the rest of the evening: beauty and sonic delights in abundance, but little beneath the surface. The horns excelled in the Scherzo and the flutes led the winds with wonderful lyricism, but there was little link between the seemingly disparate paragraphs of the work. The greatest revelation of the night was an unexpected encore of Delius' On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, the first in the Vienna Phil's history, was a joy – gentle, colourful and exquisitely realised.