The Wiener Symphoniker has suffered recently from more late conductor cancellations than most orchestras, and things reached a peak last season when their chief conductor Fabio Luisi pulled out of a string of engagements in order to substitute for James Levine at the Met. The problem wasn’t the cancellations themselves but rather the unpredictability, as Luisi, taking Levine at his word, would typically promise the orchestra to keep his commitment until the last feasible minute, leaving the Symphoniker scrabbling to find a substitute of their own when Luisi accepted the Met’s eleventh-hour call.

Eliahu Inbal © Z Chrapek
Eliahu Inbal
© Z Chrapek

Last season will not go down as one of the Symphoniker’s finest, but one thing they seemed to have picked up from the Luisi experience is how to take cancellations more in their stride. Ivor Bolton was scheduled to conduct this concert but, due to illness, cancelled on Sunday; his replacement, Eliahu Inbal, was left with little rehearsal opportunity before the first concert (on Tuesday), but is also somewhat Bolton’s polar opposite when it comes to performance practice. And yet the results were not at all bad.

I doubt we would have seen this number of strings in the Mozart concerto under Bolton’s direction, but more striking – and something we have been missing with Luisi’s fleet touch in Mozart – was that the Symphoniker still possesses the distinctive Mozart sound cultivated by Herbert von Karajan (who led the orchestra during the 1950s). There’s a nobility and depth here, always quite unassuming in temperament, and it doesn’t really compare with how the Vienna Philharmonic play Mozart. It lacks dramatic force because its tension is achieved in different ways: with exaggerated articulation absent, the smallest gestural change can tip the balance to attain the authority that Mozart’s consolidations require, and while the playing is restrained it supports a broad palette of expression that one rarely sees in more assertive performances.

This Piano Concerto no. 21 lies fairly easily under the hand but Simone Dinnerstein made it look far from simple: high wrists, curved fingers and deliberately awkward fingering produced crab-like movement across the keyboard, though the consistent legato she produced was at odds with the optics, which seems genuinely to be a keyboard method that accommodates the shape of her hand, rather than willful idiosyncrasy. The fluency of playing and expression elsewhere was just as effortless no matter how difficult Dinnerstein made it look, my only complaint being that notes at the end of phrases might have not been placed with such obvious ‘graceful’ emphasis. The famous second movement achieved excellent balance, with depth and roundedness to the melody and restraint to match the Symphoniker.

The Mozart was also Eliahu Inbal’s conducting highlight of the evening, with the Symphoniker a supportive but by no means lesser partner, well-judged tempi, and the sonority already mentioned. For a last-minute replacement Bruckner’s Symphony no. 5 was acceptable enough, though for some reason, possibly rehearsal constraints, the Adagio and Finale came off much more successfully than the first and third movements. Brucknerian symphonic logic is a completely different ball game to, say, Brahms, and it is no fault of his writing that the first movement – one of his most tightly constructed – seemed rambling, even if this misapprehending of his protean themes and their development was not the worst case I have heard.

The Finale, however, was utterly convincing: the knitting together of earlier themes creates a density of texture that must be kept in balance for the final glorious synthesis, and here Inbal didn’t put a foot wrong. Brucknerian grandeur, not overplayed in the earlier movements, finally shone through – the sonorities of the brass in their chorale statements was quite magnificent, and again comparable in quality to a Philharmonic performance even if tonally dissimilar. Moments when the strings sounded like a homogenous block had also been few and far between, but were likewise concentrated to forceful effect in the Finale. Unfortunately one good movement does not make a complete Bruckner experience, but given the circumstances the way things came together at the end was quite unexpected.

***11