Simone Young is one of the most renowned conductors on the platform today, having made her name recording and conducting a wide variety of works and composers, in particular Bruckner and Wagner. The Australian is also the first female conductor to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker and is equally at home today both in the orchestra pit and on the concert podium. When she took the stage this evening at the Konzerthaus, it was with a great deal of poise and self-awareness.

Simone Young © Klaus Lefebvre
Simone Young
© Klaus Lefebvre

The Wiener Symphoniker is, likewise, a household name which needs no introduction. Since the orchestra’s first performance in 1900 under the baton of Ferdinand Löwe, there is virtually no conductor of note, hall, or work which has not been part of their history. They tour regularly through every inhabited continent, are overflowing with brilliant musicians and performers, and have a fairly endless recording list to their credit.

So, when a brilliant conductor and a formidable orchestra join forces to perform powerful, standard and beloved repertoire such as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, the result would naturally be magic? Unfortunately, musical magic has more to do with chemistry than it does with mathematics. And this evening fell considerably short of magical despite a devil’s share of ability, talent, competence and energy.

Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, with the revolutionary scale and construction of its opening movement, the soulful march of the second, the vigour of the third and the denouement of the finale is masterful. And Young conducted it masterfully- there was never a doubt to be had that she did not know exactly what she wanted or what she was doing. More clarity in conducting could hardly be asked for, but yet what she was portraying and demanding from the orchestra was simply not what was being delivered. The Symphoniker, firmly embedded in their scores, were either unable or unwilling to follow her lead and the incongruity was frustrating and awkward. Perhaps Young was micro-managing a bit and needed to get out of the way of an orchestra which plays together so well. Perhaps her style and aesthetic are not in keeping with the Symphoniker’s musical vision or perhaps there just wasn’t a lot of rehearsal time to bring this programme together to a place where they were feeling it similarly. Whatever the reasons, the end effect was an evening where Beethoven and the audience were slightly shortchanged. The work came across, in general, as careful and studied, not exciting and free. Moreover there were just too many little things that didn’t settle; entrances which didn’t land together, mild intonation issues and a feeling like the bigger picture was lost in the minutiae. To make the performance even more unsettling, a small quorum of the audience applauded after the first movement while the rest looked perplexed by this break from tradition. This led to half-hearted applause after every consecutive movement accompanied by bemused whispering.

The Brahms symphony fared considerably better. Brahms wrote the work during a summer in the idyllic lakeside town of Pörtscharch, Carinthia, an area which inspired him deeply and has been the home of the International Brahms Competition for over 20 years. The symphony is rich in colour, melody, thematic material, variation and seems to contain so much nature that comparisons with Beethoven’s Pastoral were voiced from the time of its first performance in December 1877. By the third movement at the very latest, we were reminded of why we were all so happy to be there. I would have preferred much more in the way of sweeping phrase and line in the first two movements and found them less than decisive in terms of direction and movement, but there were plentiful moments of gorgeous warmth and colour. I particularly enjoyed the tiny jewel of a third movement which was breathtaking from the opening wind work until its final chords. The finale, likewise was engaging, exciting and rich, and happily unburdened.

***11