Vienna Symphony Orchestra © Andreas Balon
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
© Andreas Balon
After this season’s Schubert symphony cycle, the deliberate attempt by Philippe Jordan to focus his orchestra on central European repertoire continues. Bartók paired with Beethoven form the cornerstone of most of Jordan’s concerts with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. An entire cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos featuring French pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard runs through the season. Each one is paired with a significant work by Hungarian composer Bela Bartók, for whom Beethoven was a great influence.  

Beethoven's five piano concertos span a period from when the composer was in his late teens to the Fifth, premiered when he was 41. The Fifth is commonly known by its nickname The Emperor, given to the work not by Beethoven, but by his English publisher. In the Fourth Piano Concerto, Beethoven opens not with a long tutti, but launches with piano alone, before the orchestra is gently ushered in. Its second movement is a dialogue between piano and orchestra which has been likened to Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades.

Philippe Jordan © JF Leclercq
Philippe Jordan
© JF Leclercq
Bartók’s works featured in the season include favourites such as the Concerto for Orchestra, composed to showcase Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony in 1943, and the pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. Another pantomime ballet – The Wooden Prince – is something of a rarity in concert halls. Written for a huge orchestra, the tale concerns a prince whose attempts to reach the princess of his dreams are thwarted by a fairy. The real Bartók spectacular comes at the end of the season, though, with a concert performance of the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, starring Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz. As much a psychological work as anything else, a concert performance of Bluebeard can be just as striking as a full staging.

Other must-hear Jordan programmes includes Mahler mighty Third Symphony, the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. Schumann’s epic Scenes from Goethe’s Faust are tackled by Daniel Harding in November, with a classy line-up of soloists including Christian Gerhaher and Christiane Karg.

There is some juicy later Romantic German and Austrian fare on the Vienna Symphony’s menu, capable of satisfying the most vocarious appetites! Franz Schmidt’s oratorio The Book with Seven Seals telling the history of Mankind and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from St John’s Gospel. It’s a huge work, requiring huge forces, which is exactly what it gets under the leadership of Manfred Honeck.

Marek Janowski guides the orchestra through chunks of Götterdämmerung, while Sebastian Weigle conducts the Fourth Symphony of one of Wagner’s greatest disciples, Anton Bruckner. Another Austrian – Alexander Zemlinsky – has two works performed next season: the seven movement Lyric Symphony, with Anne Schwanewilms and Thomas Hampson the soloists; and the lushly scored Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), a fantasy after Hans Christian Andersen. Vladimir Jurowski conducts both Zemlinsky concerts.

Hilary Hahn © Michael Patrick O'Leary
Hilary Hahn
© Michael Patrick O'Leary
Orchestral tours offer the perfect opportunity to hone an interpretation, especially in a concerto where conductor and soloist can tease out different nuances each evening. Hilary Hahn will know Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor a good deal better by February, by when she’ll have performed it twelve times, from Vienna to Munich, Stuttgart to Hamburg, Cologne to Mannheim. This sunniest of violin concertos often labours under the label of ‘neglected’. Joseph Joachim, its dedicatee, never played it in public, complaining about its “extremely thick orchestral accompaniment”. Hilary Hahn is the latest in the growing band of the concerto’s champions.

Charles Dutoit leads another tour – to Hungary, Slovenia and Italy – taking a colourful programme of Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet), Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Ravel’s painterly orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Dutoit’s mastery in these scores is renowned.

Regular concert-goers should certainly enjoy hearing the Vienna Symphony under a variety of conductors in a variety of repertoire. How an orchestra can vary its sound – chameleon-like – is indicative of its class. One final gem to catch, which should demonstrate a true Viennese sound: VSO oboist Ines Galler performs Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto – it’s always lovely to have a musician emerge from the orchestral ranks to give a concerto performance: it promotes local colour and generates a collegiate atmosphere which can be rather special.