Tonight’s The Rest is Noise concert, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas and Yefim Bronfman, took on one of 20th-century music’s biggest questions. Anyone who has been following this huge concert series – or indeed the accompanying BBC documentary The Sound and the Fury – will no doubt be acquainted by now with Arnold Schoenberg and his angry, radical ways. They might not, though, be so keenly aware that Schoenberg professed himself deeply influenced by the music of that arch traditionalist Johannes Brahms – yet he did so, repeatedly, and there is indeed a deeply traditional side to Schoenberg and his music’s personality, with an apparent commitment to rather old-fashioned forms and structures, and Germanic ideas of the supremacy of “pure”, subjectless concert music.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas

And yet his music sounds so different. Depsite a plethora of underlying similarities between Schoenberg and Brahms, Schoenberg’s later compositions just do not resemble late-Romantic music aurally. How this can be – how surface and substance can be so far removed – is surely the question that lies at the heart of most of the problems classical music has encountered since this time.

Ample scope, then, for a fascinating programme to be drawn up comparing and contrasting these two composers’ ways. Sadly, the works on the bill this evening barely got started on any of these issues, strangely unrepresentative as they were of Schoenberg’s music: the Theme and Variations, Op. 43b is an eccentric, bizarre late piece, and his transcription of Brahms’ G minor Piano Quartet for orchestra can hardly be considered a “composition” of Schoenberg’s in a conventional sense. Add to that Brahms’ ever-beautiful Second Piano Concerto, a surefire show-stealer on most programmes anyway, and you can’t help but feel that (yet again) poor old Arnold has been rather hard done by.

The audience weren’t hard done by, though. The Vienna Phil delivered the kind of performance in the two Brahms pieces that you would expect from this orchestra in this repertoire – that is, it sounded peerless – and Tilson Thomas was in utter control throughout, impressing a crystal-clear sense of shape onto both works. The opening Schoenberg was wonderfully realised as well, but it’s a rather silly piece, and I would have been fascinated to hear these forces tackling some more sensible Schoenberg repertoire.

Yefim Bronfman was a perfect soloist in the Brahms concerto, every inch a virtuoso but not at all a showman. This is the ideal combination for the piece, which melds stratospheric technical demands for the soloist with a focus on the orchestra atypical of most concerti. Bronfman here was completely as one with the orchestra, their exchanges melting into each other with almost unbelieveable grace and ease. If this rather humble soloistic approach led to a Scherzo less pointed than it might have been, Bronfman’s exquisitely measured slow movement (whose real star was cello soloist Tamás Varga) more than compensated. I may be none the wiser about Schoenberg after this concert, but for a moment I felt like I truly understood Brahms, such was the surety of the playing.

After the break, things concluded with Schoenberg’s transcription of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25. This virtuosic and amusing transcription gets progressively more bats as it proceeds: a fairly straight first movement is followed by a second which tucks away a few rogue notes on a xylophone. The third movement then veers off a couple of times into Turkish march territory with cymbals galore, and the finale subsequently indulges in some curious (for Brahms) string techniques – most notably playing col legno (with the wood of the bow) – and features the xylophone heavily. It’s a riotous showcase of a piece for the orchestra, and they certainly made the most of it. Exquisitely phrased by MTT, especially in the finale, this was a joyous way to close proceedings.

If this transcription – so much funnier than Brahms’ original – proves anything, it is that Schoenberg had a decidedly peculiar understanding of Brahms. For me, this point undermines the whole premise of the evening’s programme – which I suspect was really just a cunning ruse to get the Vienna Phil in to play some Brahms. But with playing of this quality, you’d be hard pushed to complain.

****1