Sir Simon Rattle
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, KV 543
Symphony no. 40 in G minor, KV 550
Symphony no. 41 in C major ‘Jupiter’, KV 551
Salzburg’s Mozartwoche is currently in full swing but Vienna doesn’t take well to being outshone during the season and, for motives only a Freudian psychiatrist could explain, the Musikverein tends to up the star wattage for this particular week in January. The big name Thomas Angyan pulled out of the hat for today, the 257th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, was the same as for Mozart’s 255th anniversary, though Simon Rattle actually conducted Mozart this time around and appeared not with the Berlin Philharmonic but rather his regular guesting gig, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (which is currently on European tour).
It would take a special performance to begin to compare to the last time I heard these late symphonies but far from showing what Rattle is capable of on a good day, or indeed something running the less flattering Rattle gamut of inconsistent to infuriating, this was vanilla Mozart of the type that wouldn’t protest too much were it to be relegated to elevator music (or to give a Musikverein analogy, deemed fit for the commercially-driven indignities of the bewigged ‘Wiener Mozart Concerts’ that typically occupy the Brahms Saal next door). I write about it here without a great deal of reflection as so much of it already drained from my mind on the U-Bahn ride home.
The OAE didn’t play badly and brass accuracy on these unforgiving instruments was generally excellent if not quite untouchable. Winds went rapidly out of tune and to have paused for adjustment between movements would have been no small mercy. Under Rattle the strings produced a lush roundness that tried almost to ape Viennese-style golden tone, but in straining to do so and pushing these instruments in tonal directions for which they are not configured this gave way in a number of places to outright thinness and astringency. Abbado has been dabbling for a while in this kind of hybridity but I don’t know what to make of its more perverse practices and results, except that if Taruskin can ever get over his hostility to modernism then we appear to be in need of a revised edition to Text and Act.
Rattle kept hard-driven tempi at bay but pulse was consistently at a level where the great disfigurement of much otherwise decent Mozart playing, contrived urgency, repeatedly intruded; and all the more fraudulently as this music-making never seemed to want to truly possess the vitality that was in abundance at Jordi Savall’s Resonanzen concert the other day. Rattle doesn’t go out of his way to stylize this music but of his efforts at shaping the less successful touches were all unmistakably his and, unluckily, what might be considered as insight too generic to pass for genuine individuality (though as a seasoned visitor to the Musikverein, he knows the bewitching pianissimi this hall’s acoustic makes possible – and never failed to get them). The Jupiter’s counterpoint knitted poorly and there was little interplay between voices elsewhere; inner voices were often prominent for no clear musical reason and when a line was articulated it rarely ran a fully conceived course. If Barenboim was deriving tension and order from textural planes, Rattle was hoping to get it from vertical rigidity, in an all too commonplace misreading of galant periodicity which stripped too much of the richness away from the writing. The Musikverein likes to group big names in subscription packages labelled ‘Meisterinterpreten’ and judged by that billing, Barenboim’s Mozart was Hegelian and Rattle’s Harnoncourt with an unprepossessing human face.