Controversy and suspicion have dogged the Vienna Philharmonic, not least because it only appointed its first female member as recently as 1997. Yet its distinctive sound remains one of the world’s finest. Julian Haylock unpicks its musical workings
The Vienna Philharmonic has a unique musical heritage which it guards jealously to this day. Since 1933 it has studiously avoided appointing a chief conductor or music director and its members have to spend a probationary period of at least three years playing in the orchestra of the Vienna Opera before being considered worthy for the Philharmonic. The few who are successful are accorded an instrument from the orchestra’s own collection, thereby ensuring sonic continuity from player to player. Such is its deeply ingrained sense of tradition that it held out longer than any other world-class orchestra before voting to appoint its first female member in 1997 – harpist Anna Lelkes (who apparently had already been playing with them for 26 years).
If the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic might be likened to the purring of a stretch limousine, the Vienna Philharmonic is more akin to a luxury sports car – exhilarating, articulate, hands-on but with a hint of danger and excitement. If the Berliner’s play with the moulded introspection of chamber musicians writ large, the Viennese are more naturally extravert, swinging phrases and rejoicing in their refulgent sonic splendour.
There is, of course, no single way to play a composer’s music, yet few can doubt the special sense of identity the orchestra exudes when immersed in the revered Austro-German tradition. When it comes to the music of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner and the Strausses (Richard and the Viennese dance-music family) there are few outfits who can seriously rival the Philharmonic’s majestic poise and authority.
The orchestra’s profound sense of history, of being a vital part of a musical continuum, possesses its own unique physical dimension as its instruments have been (mostly) handed down through generations of players. This is most noticeable in the brass and horn sections, as witness the opening number (Eduard Strauss’s Helenen-Quadrille) of the orchestra’s traditional New Year’s Concert (2014) conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
Notice the distinctive small-bore, rotary valve trumpets at 2:52, and in the next piece (Josef Strauss’s Friedenspalmen-Walzer) the horns’ distinctive pumpenventil, a unique double-cylinder valve that facilitates an exquisite legato sound (16:10). The strings are arrayed in 19th-century fashion, with (from left to right) the first violins followed by cellos, viola and second violins, and double basses in a line at the back of the orchestra, next to the percussion. With the exception of four Stradivari violins, reportedly none of the string instruments is especially valuable, yet they form a carefully integrated family that complements perfectly the orchestra’s combined tonal opulence and shimmering brilliance.
The origins of the Vienna Philharmonic can be traced back to 1842, when a group of musicians from the Vienna Court Opera gave their first concert on 28 March under Otto Nikolai, famous today as the composer of the overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, performed here in a famous recording by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by their long-time concertmaster and New Year’s Day Concert director, Willi Boskovsky:
Nikolai stayed for six years, but during that time gave only a dozen official concerts with the fledgling outfit, which was on the point of disbanding when he departed. A series of guest conductors and a more stable, three-year spell under Karl Anton Eckert, did little to improve the orchestra’s fortunes until in 1860 Otto Dessolf became the first in a line of conductors hired over the next seven decades on a yearly ‘subscription’ basis. Dessolf, who went on to conduct the premiere of Brahms’s First Symphony in Karlsruhe in 1876, spent 15 years turning the orchestra into a crack outfit with a magnificent new home in the Musikverein, which remains its base to this day.
The orchestra went from strength to strength under Hans Richter (who in 1876 conducted the first complete performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle at Bayreuth) and Gustav Mahler, who insisted upon (and obtained) the highest standards during a three-year tenure (1898–1901) that witnessed the posthumous world premiere of Bruckner’s complete Sixth Symphony and the Viennese premiere of his own First Symphony, the finale of which crackles with energy in this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel:
If Mahler saw orchestral discipline as the way to achieve interpretative freedom and temporal flexibility, Felix Weingartner, who led the orchestra between 1908 and 1927, felt that the score was sacrosanct in such matters. A rare Italian film, captured in 1937, features Weingartner conducting the VPO in one of its trademark pieces, Johann Strauss the Younger’s ‘Blue Danube’ Waltz. His undemonstrative charm can be savoured (tantalisingly briefly) at 0:22 and 1:27:
Following a brief period under Wilhelm Furtwängler (who departed in 1930 for Berlin), the orchestra appointed the last of its ‘subscription’ conductors, the formidable Clemens Krauss, whose natural empathy for the ‘waltz king’ can be experienced in another rare film with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra captured by Gaumont at the Salzburg Festival in 1933, the year Krauss quit Vienna to take over at the Berlin State opera from Erich Kleiber.
There followed a remarkable period of emerging conducting talent such that the Philharmonic found agreement on whom should be appointed impossible. Had it not been for the terrors of the Second World War, it would certainly have continued engaging a wide variety of conductors, but as the Anschluss drew ever-nearer they waved farewell to the likes of Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, George Szell, Victor de Sabata and Weingartner – at least until after the war. Of those who remained during the war years – including Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch and Willem Mengelberg – the most potent influence proved to be Furtwängler, whose magnetic presence and control can still be felt in a colour film of the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni captured at the 1954 Salzburg Festival just a few months before his death, aged 68:
The orchestra’s less than tolerant attitude towards certain of its members during the war continues to haunt it to this day (an independent report revealing exactly what went on was published in 2013), yet the post-war era was a truly golden musical age in the Vienna Philharmonic’s distinguished history. It was now that the meticulous balancing encouraged by Furtwängler, with full-throated strings, clearly delineated woodwind and powerful brass underpinned by granitic bass lines, came to fruition. The quality of the individual players within the orchestra’s ranks was now such that concertmaster Willi Boskovsky and his clarinettist brother Alfred founded the Vienna Octet, a celebrated outfit which imbued the music it played with a warmth, charm and sparkle that spills over in a winning account of the Allegro vivace third movement of Schubert’s Octet:
At the same time as Deutsche Grammophon began capturing the autumnal glow of the Berlin Philharmonic with unerring accuracy, the emerging London-based firm Decca fully embraced stereo technology during the mid-1950s with its ‘full frequency range recordings’ and revealed the thrilling sonic projection and majestic power of the Vienna Philharmonic as never before on disc. This reached its apogee with Sir Georg Solti’s blockbuster account of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle (1958-66), which caught the orchestra’s virtuoso exuberance at white heat. As Wotan leads his entourage into Valhalla during the closing pages of Das Rheingold, the Philharmonic projects the obscene delirium of absolute power with overwhelming force:
Solti’s ‘Ring’ also encapsulates the Philharmonic’s unprecedented emotional range during this period, from exquisite detailing of radiant allure to electrifying surges of frightening intensity. It is hard to believe that the same orchestra who swung the music of Johann Strauss with such warm contentment and Gemütlichkeit in an unsurpassed Herbert von Karajan-directed 1987 account of The Voices of Spring with Kathleen Battle at her most exquisite:
was also responsible for the apocalyptic drive and fiery intensity of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with one of its favourite conductors, Carlos Kleiber:
In the current age, when the sonic profiling of top-class orchestras has acquired an internationalised polished professionalism devoid of local cultural accent, the Vienna Philharmonic proudly maintains its distinctive identity. Over the last half-century its sound has mellowed from the almost pointillist detailing of the 1960s to a more integrated tonal dove-tailing, yet it retains its magical sense of communion with the central Austro-German classics that is uniquely satisfying. Watching a 2006 Salzburg performance of Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony conducted by Daniel Harding, questions of authenticity appear to melt away as one experiences a point of musical contact with the composer’s original vision that is quite simply inimitable: