Opening their UK tour at the Bridgewater Hall, the Vienna Tonkünstler under Yutaka Sado gave a worthy account of well-worn repertoire, yet without giving much impression of inspiration sparking between conductor and players (at least until the end).
The real delight of the night was Emma Johnson’s playing of the solo in Mozart’s clarinet concerto, which was individual and inimitable.
The Tonkünstler may not be the Vienna Philharmonic or indeed the Vienna Symphony, but they play in the central European tradition. Last night they fielded 51 strings, the extra one being a seventh double bass, and this, together with the placing of the violas front-of-stage, gave their string sound an enviable fullness and solidity in their Schubert (‘Unfinished’ Symphony) and Brahms (Symphony no. 1).
But fullness and solidity is not everything, and more questionable was the placing of the trombones high up and central at the back, which made their role unsubtle and not really appropriate for music of their tradition (the St Petersburg Philharmonic, heard here recently, tucked them away at the side and level with those in front of them, and that was with even more string players).
Sado’s reading of the Schubert brought dramatic possibilities from the available dynamic contrasts in this conformation, with a whispered, mysterious beginning (and introduction to the mid-movement) and portentous effects from the brass whenever they played. The second movement displayed the solo playing of the higher wind principals – particularly the clarinet – and the last page was weighed out as if Schubert always meant it to end there, giving a suitably ponderous conclusion.
Cut down to 31 for the concerto, the strings sounded far better, with lively articulation and a warm cushion of sound in the Adagio.
Emma Johnson knows this piece as well as anyone on earth, probably, and she had every phrase thought out and built to make a narrative (at times a drama – and even a comedy).
Her tone was gentle, but never obscure, self-effacing but unmistakably graceful, and the finale became like an evening of chamber music as she nodded her thoughts towards the concert master and the orchestra responded.
The Brahms sound was from full-strength strings again, with the contra bassoon and double basses giving a firm underpinning, and by the time they reached the second movement there was something more intriguing, too – lyricism and a degree of passion from the violins. The third movement, for a ‘grazioso’, was quite intense and heavy-footed, but the finale took off, with its sense of growing anticipation, brazen tone from the horns at last coming into its own, and vigorous acceleration as they swung into the big tune.
So all ended well, and the crowd loved it.