The upstarts have come and gone. Now the final week of the BBC Proms is dominated by an impressive line-up of three of the world’s oldest and most august orchestras from both sides of the Atlantic, those of Vienna, Leipzig and Boston.
In its two concerts at the beginning of the week the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra reasserted its traditional supremacy. Under some conductors the players can seem to be on autopilot, but the magisterial sweep of Daniel Barenboim’s musicianship found a common spirit with them in several performances of outstanding depth and vision.
Monday’s Prom was rooted in old Vienna. Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 was played with all the familiar Viennese sweetness and grace, its scope widened here and there by Barenboim’s typical expansiveness, where the music seemed to take a deep breath and open its arms in a generous embrace. Barenboim then came into his own with a magnificent performance of the Symphony No. 4 of Bruckner. At moments of stillness the symphony seemed to gaze out towards distant horizons where it knew no boundaries. The arrival at the summit was marked by a uniquely golden glow from the brass. Everything was beautifully played, though a special mention has to be made of the eloquent first horn, who provided what was arguably the finest solo contribution at this year’s Proms.
On Tuesday, the focus switched to the lands east of Austria. For all their closeness to Vienna, this is strange musical territory for the Viennese musicians and also for Barenboim, though they roused themselves to bring an imaginative programme to life. Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta did not sound as if it had sprung organically from the Hungarian earth, but in its very cultivated way this performance had exquisite colours and atmosphere. Ligeti’s Atmosphères, best known from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, took strange sonorities into an otherworldly sphere. The energy and songfulness of Kodály’s Dances of Gálanta and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 provided a vivid contrast. After all that, how amusing that Barenboim and his players should get their feet tangled up in their encore – a Johann Strauss polka. Whatever would they have said back in Vienna?
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