First class music making and an interesting mix of the familiar and the rare make the Philharmonia’s “Life in Vienna, Death in Venice” program a winner. The orchestra requested Richard StraussFestmusik der Stadt Wien and conductor Martyn Brabbins complied. It would be the first time the entire brass section had played together since the pandemic and the sense of occasion was palpable. 

The brass section of the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Philharmonia Orchestra

Strauss composed the piece as a musical thank you note to Vienna, which had awarded him the Beethoven Prize the year before in 1942. He wrote it specifically for the Vienna Trumpet Corps, a municipal ensemble made up of instrumentalists from the city’s three symphony orchestras, and split the brass into two choirs, intertwining antiphonal fanfares to start, then dialoguing over the lyrical main theme which the second choir transforms into something more martial, continuing through a wistful interlude and a brief alarming outburst before the fanfares return to build and blaze in a triumphal coda. The virtuosity and timbral variety and beauty of the Philharmonia brass (who, save for the 2 tubas, performed standing) pleaded an eloquent case for this rarely performed and most unusual score.

Another unusual, though more familiar, score followed. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto puzzled contemporaries so much that it was only performed once in his lifetime, when he himself premiered it in 1808. Eclipsed by the Third and the Fifth, it was brought to light by Mendelssohn’s advocacy in the 1840s and his programming it on tour. The piano doesn’t thunder; it cajoles, suggests, and insinuates. When it does assert itself, it does so firmly but mostly quietly. Steven Osborne’s lightness of texture and touch and his ability to make each note like a cool droplet of water refracting the colors of the spectrum were married to a feeling of spontaneous improvisation which made it seem like the concerto was being composed as it was being heard and that the piano was often thinking aloud. Everything darkens in the uncharacteristically dramatic Andante, sometimes characterized as Orpheus taming the Furies. Here the atmosphere was spectral, more of a haunted landscape peopled by nightmares and murmurs in the dark. The orchestra could be aggressively menacing while Osborne always countered with a soothing flow of hypnotic song until all fears were calmed and sleep prevailed. The Rondo broke like sunrise, but both Brabbins and Osborne never lost sight of the unique quality of the closing movement. Unlike Beethoven’s usual hearty, often rustic, finales, the Fourth’s is elegant, poised, and restrained, though no less jubilant.

In Britten’s Death in Venice, the city is far from serenissima. It is a place of forebodings and portents, “ambiguous Venice where water is married to stone,” where the colors are muted and even the sea sparkles in unsettling fashion. Steuart Bedford’s suite, encompassing seven episodes from the opera, captures both protagonist and city in all their ambiguity. Every note is Britten’s, save for two bars connecting the Overture to Venice to the First Beach Scene. 

Martyn Brabbins, Steven Osborne and the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Philharmonia Orchestra

Brabbins’ familiarity with the opera allows the listener to appreciate the invention and richness underpinning a score often mischaracterized as austere. Britten’s evocation of the city and its sights, sounds, and changing light, of the sea, of Aschenbach’s fateful decisions and state of mind and Tadzio’s godlike transcendence seem even more dramatic without the distraction of the vocal line. The use of the gamelan and the harmonies of the Far East make more of an impact and assert their centrality. The city’s ambiguity is heightened with, for example, the tolling bells of St Mark’s eventually taking on the quality of a death knell. Brabbins and the Philharmonia were so articulate that words weren’t even necessary to have a clear idea of what the opera is about and where it takes place.The first two episodes devoted to Venice, Tadzio, and the concluding death scene on the beach left the most memorable impressions, but the performance as a whole hit the mark.

This is the last of the Philharmonia’s streams under pandemic restrictions. Their next performances will once again be before live audiences. If they play like this in an empty hall, I can only imagine what an impact those next concerts will make.

This concert was reviewed from the Philharmonia's live stream