Missy Mazzoli's Song From the Uproar
Weekend in the Country

Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie: Mozart and Wagner

by Angela Sutton

Vienna Carnegie 3-3

Debating which orchestra can lay claim to the title of "best in the world" is a favorite pastime of classical music lovers.  Often the issue becomes a matter of taste; nonetheless, some orchestras possess qualities that surpass simple preference.  The Vienna Philharmonic forcefully made its case for ownership of the pre-eminent title on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

Formed in 1842 to perform the music of some of Vienna's favorite adopted sons - Mozart and Beethoven - the Vienna Philharmonic is a musician-controlled democracy.  This fact places the performers in a unique relationship to their work and to each other, which I firmly believe comes through in their playing. I have never heard a string section so closely approach the theoretical ideal of one instrument of many hands - their coordination was simply uncanny.  Add melted-butter woodwinds and sizzling brass, and you have an orchestra capable of astonishing feats.

After forty years of guest-conducting stints in Vienna, Lorin Maazel became an honorary member of the Philharmonic in 2002.  New Yorkers, of course, know him well, and I myself grew up watching him lead the Pittsburgh Symphony.  Now an octogenarian, Maestro Maazel showed no signs of letting up on Saturday, conducting with ramrod-straight posture and without a score.  Although a polarizing figure, Maazel undoubtedly possesses a restless and penetrating musical mind that leaves its imprint on whatever he undertakes.

Saturday's program consisted of only two works. Arguably the most famous symphony not by Beethoven, Mozart's Symphony #40 in G-minor was given a slightly slow pace here, which darkened the symphony's palette and lent it heft.  At the time he wrote it (1788), Mozart was experimenting with thicker, weightier textures, and it was pleasant to hear a group take this turn seriously.  Maazel's further dramatic additions - short but deliberate slowings at the return of the main themes of each movement - couldn't be heard as anything but conductorly intrusions. Still, if any orchestra has the right to tinker with Mozart, it is the Vienna Phil, and their sheer musicianship carried the day.

The second half was Maazel's "Ring Without Words", a boiling down of Wagner's sixteen-hour Ring Cycle to seventy minutes, without singers.  Many of the familiar set numbers from these massive operas have had a second life outside of the operas, but noone had before attempted a synthesis of all four operas. (Indeed, Maazel said it took him three attempts to get it right, almost giving up after the first attempt.)

Maazel's reworking placed the music in plot order, shortening the selections and stitching them back together with new arrangements of music from the intervening events, recapturing the dramatic arc of the operas (at the expense of a few gear-clashing transitions). The work's real strength, however, is in its continuous display of orchestral virtuosity, testing the endurance of every musician in the giant ensemble required (double helpings of all the standard instruments, plus a troupe of Wagner tubas and other assorted instrumental oddballs.)  This expanded group assembled Wagner's magical towers of sound near-flawlessly, and the cumulative effect of their long buildups was almost unbearably magnificent.  The peak of the work, Siegfried's Funeral March, left me - and this is not a figure of speech - breathless.  After this experience, I expect almost every orchestral performance I hear - of anything - for quite some time to seem puny by comparison.

For those who missed it, NPR Music has made last night's broadcast of the performance available online.