The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is on its “Week in Japan” tour and has delivered yet another remarkable concert on its third night at Suntory Hall this week. Under the baton of the energetic Riccardo Muti, the Vienna Phil proved itself once again as the world's irreplaceable orchestra. The programme comprised two symphonic works, in either of which an orchestra can make a big impression by playing them well. 

Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Suntory Hall

The first half of the concert was Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D major, known as the “Haffner” Symphony. The first movement, Allegro con spirito, certainly exhibited Vienna Philharmonic’s spirit through its fiery but detailed playing. A slow but short introduction quickly changes to a set of contrastingly fast and continuously moving melodies and harmonies. Noticeably simple subject materials make the movement a bit monothematic, but it is still unceasingly entertaining, not only because the world’s best orchestra is performing, but because Mozart cleverly plays with musical devices and rules, such as no repeat after the exposition, consecutive dominants, or slightly altered recapitulation that doesn’t fully bring back the exposition. One of the numerous reasons that Mozart’s music is perceived to be difficult to perform is that maintaining tonal quality is challenging for ensembles of all sizes. With Mozart, any odd balance of intonation or imperfect harmony just stands out, especially with winds against strings. Throughout all four colourful movements, no one in the audience had to even think or worry about intonational flaws because the Vienna Philharmonic performs Mozart as if the composer himself is in the audience. 

It’s an understatement to say that the Vienna Philharmonic’s unparalleled musicality is beyond impressive and it is proved on pieces like the second half of tonight’s concert, Schubert's Symphony No. 8 “The Great”

The subtitle is appropriate in many ways. It is a compression of all things classical and romantic, shown through its melodies and harmonies, musical and emotional expressions, details and layers of colours. The majesty of the piece is narrated in every measure and every sound and only a mature ensemble of the highest calibre is able to recreate this art in a convincing manner. 

Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Suntory Hall

In a sense, each movement can almost stand by itself as a separate piece because it is so extensive, despite the overall work being a standard symphonic four-movement form. Yes, there were more musicians than Mozart’s Symphony in the earlier half, but it is not just the loudness or the number of musicians on stage that impresses the audience: rather, it is that the absolute togetherness of the Vienna Philharmonic makes it sound like as if only a few musicians are playing enormously large sounding instruments. The sound that filled the beautiful hall was simply magical and pleasant, captivating the hearts of many.  

One of many noticeable elements that distinguishes Schubert from his contemporaries, such as Beethoven, is his use of melodies. Extensive melodic development and emphasis certainly make his later symphonies, such as tonight's, unique. Technically challenging and flashy string writing, balanced with occasional solo or section solo parts, is also a Schubert trademark. 

Maestro Muti’s energetic but controlled, exciting and flawless conducting was another gem of tonight’s concert. He is 80 years of age but how does he appear to be decades younger? Perhaps it really is music that helps him and us be healthy. 

*****