Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

Just a month ago, a panel of historians confirmed what many had suspected for decades – that the fellowship of musicians calling itself the Vienna Philharmonic had treated its Jewish members shamelessly after the 1938 Nazi Anschluss, virtually sending them to their deaths. In that context, Tuesday’s concert could have been seen as a symbolic attempt to make amends: it featured two guest musicians who are Jewish, and the programme was dominated by the music of a Jewish composer who fled his native Vienna in 1933 – Arnold Schoenberg.

But that’s reading too much into things. Like Solti, Bernstein et al before them, the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the pianist Yefim Bronfman were chosen not on grounds of reverse discrimination but for their musical eminence. They were the interpreters best suited to the programme on the night, and it was an unusual programme – not the generic mix of symphonic favourites the Viennese usually throw together for their London visits. For this change of tack we can thank “The Rest is Noise”, Southbank Centre’s sprawling 20th-century survey. The idea was to show that Schoenberg, progenitor of so much musical upheaval in the past 100 years, was indebted to musical tradition, and specifically Brahms.

The evening began with his Theme and Variations which, in a spoken preamble, Tilson Thomas dubbed “the nearest Schoenberg got to entertainment music” (Unterhaltungsmusik). The Vienna Philharmonic probably hadn’t played it in a quarter-century, but that didn’t matter. They gave this curiosity – metamorphosing from dirge to decadent dance in 15 minutes – all the urbane swagger it requires.

Next came Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, in a performance by Bronfman that may have held no surprises but was nevertheless notable for its taste, touch and virtuosity. You couldn’t ask for more, especially in the chamber-musical exchanges between soloist and orchestra.

The second half was devoted to Schoenberg’s exuberant orchestration of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet – a piece American orchestras turn into a concerto for brass. The Vienna Philharmonic softened its contours and made the finale sound like a Hungarian Dance with percussive twirls. Never an orchestra to let its hair down, it nevertheless seemed to appreciate that Schoenberg could be fun.

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