Its policy towards female musicians, the behaviour of both administration and players towards Jewish colleagues during the Second World War, its variable performance standards and its exaggerated, hypocritical, archaic formality have all made the Vienna Philharmonic the most enigmatic of great orchestras.
The fact that John Culshaw, arguably the greatest recording producer of the 20th century (and genius), who did more than anyone to create the orchestra’s recorded legacy, was expected to regard his invitation to attend a meeting of the Orchestra’s board as a singular honour, says it all. In fact, Culshaw’s contribution to what Germans/Austrians call a festschrift, or series of celebratory articles, contains some of the more honest comments. To paraphrase him, “At its best, it’s sublime; anything less is usually pretty awful.” Mahler, as the Director of the Vienna State (Court) Opera, observed this more than a century ago when he referred to schlamperei masquerading as “tradition” among the State Opera Orchestra, from which all VPO players are drawn.
Compared to the Berlin Philharmonic or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, it was less versatile. In the 1960s, Barbirolli was bemused at their inability to grasp cross rhythms in Debussy’s La Mer. At the same time the Principal Trumpet regarded Petrouchka as avant garde. Leonard Bernstein claims he had to teach them how to play Mahler. Perhaps the tradition began to widen with Lorin Maazel’s trailblazing mid-60s Sibelius and Tchaikovsky cycles. Now the VPO tackles anything, usually brilliantly.
In this deluxe compendium, all the usual suspects among conductors are here and many of the recordings have seldom been out of the catalogue (if at all): Böhm’s brilliant Bruckner Three and Four; Kleiber’s incandescent Beethoven. Perversely, if I had to single out three items for special praise, they’d be Reiner’s peerless performances of Brahms’ Hungarian and Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances, Chailly’s Florent Schmidt Psalm 47 and Zubin Mehta’s reading of Gottfried von Einem’s Symphony – a real cracker!