Following in the footsepts of the Berlin Philharmonic's Schumann fest this past October, the Vienna Philharmonic returned to Carnegie Hall last weekend for their annual NYC visit with a trio of concerts surverying Brahms' four symphonies and the German Reqiuem. Which might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, until you remember that Brahms lived and worked in Vienna for the last thirty years of his life, and was briefly director of the parent organziation of the Musikverein, where the VPO plays all of its subscription concerts. No other orchestra - not even Berlin - can claim such a close relationship to Brahms, or his music.
The VPO was led this time around by Daniele Gatti, the Milan native whom we first saw two seasons ago in the Met's stunning Parsifal, which Gatti conducted sans score. Since then, Gatti has skyrocketed to the top of the conducting world, having recently been named the next Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, generally regarded as one of the top orchestras in the world (alongside Vienna and Berlin.)
First up on Friday night was the Third Symphony, which the VPO premiered in Vienna in 1883. For much of the performance, Gatti - who conducted the entire weekend without using a score - seemed to be playing fast and loose with the tempi for maximum dramatic effect. The VPO played cat and mouse with Gatti up until the 4th movement, when the orchestra finally showed everyone who's boss with an electrifying display of musicianship, the strings and brass unleashing their full fury. My heart swelled as I watched the music being passed from the cellos, to the violins, to the winds: suddenly, I realized that this was the living embodiment of Brahms himself, an unbroken thread to the creative impulse that birthed this music 132 years ago. Eventually, the music subsided into a shimmering, silky texture, ending with the gentle glow of a lake at sunset.
After a wild ovation, Gatti led the VPO in an impossibly fleet performance of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Nights Dream: a far more substantial encore than their standard Strauss waltzes, but absolutely the right palate cleanser after such a substantial meal.
Saturday evening's program paired the gentler, pastoral Second Symphony with the enigmatic shadows of the Fourth. Although many modern conductors have made a point of stirring up Brahms by driving through his symphonies at a brisk clip, Gatti's interpretation of the Second swung the pendulum back too far in the wrong direction, with a number of incredibly slow, over-indulgent tempo choices, especially in the opening and closing movements. Thankfully the dramatic second movement and capricious third movement maintained their usual sense of pacing and beauty, with Gatti only pulling on certain moments of tension before giving the audience the release so craved by all.The Fourth shows Brahms at the height of his powers of orchestration—melodies are tossed back and forth between the strings and winds, the brass undulate between background color and military fanfare, wonderful wind solos abound. Midway through the final movement, the flutist's winding solo was reinforced by gentle brushstrokes from the strings and solo horn, with each note's volume, length, and attack dictated by the flutist's color and melodic direction.
After finishing on a hushed note of mystery in the flute's lowest register and a moment of tense silence, the eight-note chorale returned, interrupted by a violent note in the brass and timpani, and both Gatti and these virtuoso players plunged head-first into the coda—one that smoldered until the final bar and left the audience breathless until rapturous applause quickly overtook the hall. After, they played the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: strangely dark and dolorous music for an encore.The grand finale came Sunday afternoon, when the VPO was joined by the Westminster Symphonic Choir for Brahms' German Requiem. Predating the four symphonies by nearly a decade, this is Brahms at both his most dramatic and most personal: inspired by the death of his mother in 1865, it is both spiritual and non-liturgical, meant to bring solace to the living, rather than fear and awe.
For the Westminster Choir, a student choir of undergraduates from nearby Westminster Choir College, sharing the stage with the Vienna Philharmonic must have been the thrill of a lifetime. But, let there be no mistake: these kids earned it, singing with power and clarity, their fresh, vibrant voices easily carrying over the VPO at full tilt. That said, someday it might be nice for New York to have a regular professional choir for these sorts of occasions, such as Boston's Tanglewood Festival Chorus or the Berlin Radio Choir.
Joining the chorus and orchestra were a pair of exceptional German singers ideally suited to this music. Soprano Diana Damrau, currently starring in the Met Opera's Manon, was passionate and radiant in the slow, sad fifth movement, which Brahms wrote in the voice of his recently deceased mother. ("As one whom his mother comforteth, so I will comfort you.") Baritone Christian Gerhaher, who we first saw earlier this season as Jesus in the Berlin Phil's St. Matthew Passion, started out unremarkably, his voice sounding thin and shaky in his third movement solo. But, Gerhaher came roaring back in the sixth movement: pleading, exhorting in ever-increasing spirals of intensity, igniting both chorus and orchestra in the glorious, overwhelming fugue which follows. ("For thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.")
The final movement, a final benediction for the deceased, was meditative and transporting, comforting and mysterious. For all the fiery intensity that came before it, the gentle sway of this music provided the perfect sendoff to a snowy Sunday afternoon, for both audience and orchestra.