The Vienna Philharmonic has received a mixed reception at the Proms in recent years, but this programme of Beethoven and Bruckner with Murray Perahia and Bernard Haitink, which was performed in Salzburg this weekend and tours to London next week, will be sure to be met with critical approval.

Vienna Philharmonic with Bernard Haitink © Wolfgang Lienbacher
Vienna Philharmonic with Bernard Haitink
© Wolfgang Lienbacher

There were however moments during the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 when I wasn’t so sure: Perahia’s opening chords were clipped and not to my taste, but very soon his articulation softened causing his playing to sink into anonymity. While this is not a pianist given to expressing himself in blandishments, the measured style and dryness of his playing is rarely lacking in character as it was here. Themes and phrases fell facelessly by the wayside and it was only in the cadenza that the playing had the wherewithal to take flight, with the final unsupported phrase just before the orchestra enters exhaled as a single span with a beautiful suspended quality at its height.

The first violins were on intense form for 11 am though the rest of the strings didn’t follow suit until the second movement, which, with Perahia having also found his footing, exuded an understated power. The orchestra’s unison statements were stern but not too heavy, and gelled convincingly with the plaintive entreaties heard as a refrain in the piano, with Perahia voicing them more as eloquent imploring rather than wretched whimpering. Despite its markedly steady pace the last movement had a bouncy Haydnesque lightness fully responsive to the sparkle of Perahia’s playing. Elsewhere Haitink seemed happy to indulge habits such as weighting the first cadence and its subsequent restatements with over-egged rounded warmth, as in every Vienna Philharmonic recording of this concerto (the orchestra likes to litter their Beethoven with such calling cards), though the tendency for a very prominent cello solo, which is always worth hearing, was dispensed with.

There are few living conductors with Haitink’s experience and wisdom in performing Bruckner, and his readings typically speak with great authority while eschewing the portentous bombast that popular belief would hold responsible for alienating listeners from these symphonies (I do not believe they were ever commonly conducted like that but Haitink rejects it all the same). As in much of his Bruckner conducting, Haitink was concerned in the first movement of this Ninth Symphony with two goals: sticking to a moderate tempo and maintaining at all times a decent sense of flow, and showing how Bruckner stirs his protean themes into being and subsequently develops and transforms them. Usually these two aims are kept in masterful balance, fusing to produce Bruckner’s famous architectonic spans, but here there were points at which more time might profitably have been taken without losing sight of the broader sweep; pressing through the finer detail diminished the impact of the movement’s massive contrasts. Haitink’s build-up to the final climax was however carefully prepared and the force of the very end beyond devastating. The playing, as throughout the entire symphony, was superb: violins carrying over a focused but not too fierce power from the Beethoven, brass never blaring (if hardly bashful), and winds in every respect a Brucknerian section.

Taken at a measured pace and with the rawness sanded off its unprepared dissonances, Haitink’s Scherzo did no knocking at modernism’s door as this movement typically does and yet maintained an unsettling force. The incessant retaken violin bows cut through the orchestral texture by virtue of their demonic character rather than overforced attack, and brass balance was again good. My preference is for a clearly audible flute solo in the Trio, though its presence here as a weaker voice was due to a continuity of the Scherzo’s insistent vehemence, which offered no respite from the negativity central not only to this movement but the work as a whole, or at least its torso. Darker elements to Haitink’s reading also came to the fore in the Adagio, and though he allowed some moments of repose and a restive serenity for the E major ending, greater importance here was attached to the clouds left hanging by the first two movements. Even if it felt almost too bleak without any of the available Finale completions (Haitink conducted the Nowak edition), we were left with no doubt of what Bruckner was driven to write, namely one of the most terrifying feats of sustained nihilistic force in music.