VPO in Schubert and Tchaikowsky

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Tuesday January 20 2015

Conductor: Rafael Payare. Wiener Philharmoniker.

  • Schubert: Symphony n°8, D. 759, "Unfinished"
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony n°4
  • (Encore) Eduard Strauss: Mit Chic (polka)

For the 2014-2015 season I decided we'd have a change from quitting second-rate performances of second-rate scores at the interval by dropping one of our usual opera subscriptions and buying a series of visiting (i.e. non-French) orchestras at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.

On account of work (as anyone who goes to operas and concerts knows, these things have to be paid for), I missed the first of these wholly orchestral concerts: the St Petersburg Philharmonic in Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky (in this case, the 6th), magnificent I was told by the friends who were able to attend. This VPO concert was thus, for me, the first, and it was largely a disappointment: I had hoped to be thoroughly wowed, and wasn't.

Rafael Payare has been Dudamel's assistant but, counter-intuitively, is "aussi austère que son compatriote Gustavo Dudamel est flamboyant" (altamusica.com: "as austere as his compatriot Gustavo Dudamel is flamboyant"). Bent over and wearing a long coat, he has, leaving aside the afro hairdo, the dour demeanour of a Presbyterian minister. This should (apart from the hair) go down well in Ulster, where he now works. His conducting is meticulous and restrained, dry almost (using only limited vibrato), businesslike and brisk in spirit but not in tempo, avoiding showy effect and reining in the VPO, from whom he elicited neither very loud fortissimi nor very soft pianissimi.

Of course there were moments when the VPO's virtuosity shone through. The four-square togetherness of the brass. The soaring horn tuttis. The precision of the piccolo in those terrible twiddly bits in the scherzo, that brought an admiring smile to the face of the principal 'cellist. (There must be times when flautists wish they could strangle Tchaikovsky - think of the equally twiddly bits in the finale of the famous piano concerto.) The precision of the pizzicato in the whole of that scherzo. The orchestra's amazing ability to come to a sudden, absolute silence after a gigantic chord with cymbals.

But on a cold night, a restrained performance of Schubert's 8th is no way to warm things up (why don't orchestras do overtures any more?). This concert only really got going halfway through the first movement of the Tchaikovsky - and indeed, the end of that first movement drew an impressed whistle from someone that made the orchestra laugh, and a brief ripple of applause. So there was some excitement. But ultimately, the meticulousness and restraint (which incidentally had Tchaikovsky's frequent "handovers" from strings to woodwind to brass and back again sounding more clunky than thrilling) made for rather a dull evening.

In the end (literally), it was the (single) Viennese encore that brought the orchestra out of its strait-jacket. It was the most convincing part of the programme - short enough to leave us plenty of time for a warming lentil soup at the Turks'.


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