Prom 74: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Mehta - Royal Albert Hall, 11 September 2009
There's no doubt that the Vienna Philharmonic are one of the world's greatest orchestras, but that's no guarantee of a spectacular performance every time. Their reputation rests on their celebrated musical skills, which are of course beyond question. The problem, according to Vienna State Opera boss Ioan Holender, is their less widely-discussed venality and sheer bloody-mindedness, landing them with a workload incompatible with consistently high standards. Add a conductor roster that mixes the genuine greats with the mere box office draws, and it becomes clearer why they don't always deliver the goods.
Their last Proms appearances, a couple of years ago with Daniel Barenboim, were a highlight (perhaps the highlight) of the season. This performance didn't come close. The swooning elegance of the opener, Webern's early Passacaglia, promised a vintage night. But Zubin Mehta, conducting without a score, couldn't capture an ounce of the wit in Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, and Brahms's Fourth was fleet but perfunctory. Sure, the playing was refined to a fault, exquisitely balanced, the strings polished to an unmistakable and luxurious sheen, but it had the personality and immediacy of a pre-recorded announcement.
Only the encores, Hellmesberger and Strauss polkas, showed the orchestra at something close to their sparkling best. Hair was down, autopilot was off, and for a few minutes you could think you were listening to the best orchestra in the world.