By Robert Leeper, Nick Stubblefield and FoM
Among the world's leading orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic is unique in that it does not have a permanent music director, and the foremost ruling body of the organization is the Orchestra itself. The closest thing Vienna has to a regular collaborator is their fellow Austrian Franz Welser-Möst, who from 2010 to 2014 was the general music director of the Vienna State Opera, which supplies all of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic. Over the past decade, Welser-Möst has twice led the celebrated New Year's concert, and has appeared with the orchestra numerous times on tour and at festivals around the world.
Last Friday, the Vienna Phil returned to Carnegie Hall for their annual three night run. Franz Schubert’s Overture to Die Zauberharfe, one of his most famous and popular pieces, kicked the evening off with a well paced, lyrical performance.
Rene Staar’s Time Recycling (2014), presented here in it's U.S. premiere, drew from a variety of musical styles in a loose chronological order. (In the program notes, Staar said that the piece's title refers to how the Internet and other technologies have dissolved our sense of time.) There was Takemitsu-like impressionism and tone clusters, along with surprising twists to bossa nova, jazz and modernism. A small ensemble within the orchestra traded textures, creating interesting effects. It was enjoyable to pick out references as they appeared, but in the end, the references to time failed to give the loosely connected themes coherence.
Richard Strauss had a special relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic as both composer and conductor, once stating: "All praise of the Vienna Philharmonic reveals itself as understatement." Welser-Möst mined that relationship in his performance of Strauss's epic Ein Heldenleben, which was notable for it’s sheer beauty. Which might not be surprising given the orchestra onstage, but Ein Heldenleben extends through a variety of themes, many of which can be prevailingly aggressive and harsh. Throughout, the orchestra’s strings lived up to their peerless reputation - particularly concertmaster Volker Steude's lovely solo passages - and the superb woodwinds were positively melting in their choirs. The brasses and woodwinds could snort, snarl, bray and swoon with the best of them, and the percussion, driving much of the work, was suitably raucous and disruptive.
Welser-Möst’s close-knit relationship with the Philharmonic was evident throughout. He seemed confident in his own ability, yet was able get out of way and allow the musicians to shine without interference.
As I looked around the Carnegie stage on Saturday night, the first thing I noticed was that the Vienna Philharmonic players had grown noticeably younger - not surprising, given the Philharmonic's mandatory retirement age of 62. To be sure, the orchestra is also still predominantly - and controversially - male, but I also could see that the gender balance has also started to shift ever so slowly. For an orchestra that's 175 years old, change can't be expected to come overnight.
The Philharmonic was joined on the first half of the concert by Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder for Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1. Buchbinder, 70, played with the clean lines and sharp attack of someone half his age. The crowd went crazy, and Buchbinder rewarded us with a virtuosic performance of Grünfeld's “Soirée de Vienne,” paraphrasing waltzes from Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus.
After intermission, the Philharmonic returned with Schubert's 8th "Unfinished" symphony. How many times has the VPO played this concert staple? No matter: they played it with the freshness and vitality as if they were seeing it for the first time. From the dark, brooding opening to the pastoral Andante, the Philharmonic demonstrated their clear command of Schubert's music.
The concert ended with Bartók's exotic, eerie Miraculous Mandarin, which tells the macabre, sordid tale of a brutal murder at the hands of a prostitute in captivity. Bartók's primal, propulsive, occasionally ecstatic music brought to mind Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, written five years earlier. After, the Philharmonic played one of their more familiar encores: a polka by Josef Strauss.
At the start of Sunday’s matinee performance, Welser-Möst raised his baton and we heard…nothing. What was happening? Was the orchestra about to perform John Cage’s iconic 4’33, where performers to take the stage and play nothing for four and a half minutes? No, they were actually performing the music of their fellow Viennese Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4. The sound from the strings materialized from absolutely nothing before swelling to a yearning crescendo moments later. That level of control over dynamics is just another testament to this orchestra’s prowess - and precisely what we expect from them.
Among the pantheon of Vienna composers, Schoenberg stands apart for his revolutionary 12 tone system, defying centuries of compositional convention. Verklärte Nacht, however, was not only tonal, but deeply sensitive and steeped in the Romantic tradition. There were elements in the work that signaled Schoenberg’s later transition into atonalism, like odd dissonances and note clusters. The basses hammered out deeply low, indistinguishable tremolos, something akin to thunder. But, the real life-force of the work was its huge range of dynamics, and the Vienna Phil delivered the expressivity of the music down to the finest detail.
Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major ("Great") filled out the remainder of the program. While Verklärte Nacht consisted exclusively of strings, Schubert added winds, horns, and percussion, providing some welcome sonic punch on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. The fifty-five minute work moved at a quick clip, and the orchestra delivered it with all the enthusiasm the piece inspires — heads nodded, bodies swayed and even bounced in time throughout. Robert Schumann discovered this symphony in a forgotten box years after Schubert’s death, and initially conductors received it unenthusiastically. Eventually, musicians came to appreciate its song-like elements and simplicity within a Sonata format. In any case, Welser-Möst and the Philharmonic were clearly feeling it's joy. As were we.
More pics on the photo page.