Preview: Franz Welser-Möst with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
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Franz Welser-Most with the Vienna Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, 3/2/24by Pete Matthews

In a world that's sometimes feels it's on the brink of chaos, it's comforting to know that some things can still be relied upon as winter turns to spring: buds appear on the trees, birds return from warmer climes, blossoms begin to poke through the pebbles. And the Vienna Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall.

For those who need a primer, the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the world's great cultural treasures, a living, breathing avatar of western classical music. From its founding in 1842, the Vienna Phil has either premiered or been closely associated with many of the boldest names in musical history, including Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, and Wagner. But, far from resting on its laurels, the Vienna Phil has maintained its reputation as one of the best - if not the best - performing orchestras in the world thanks to its unique sound and performance practice that balances precision and theatrical flair to ultimate effect. And while they still have a long ways to go to reach the gender parity of orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, this self-governing institution is creeping ever closer to becoming an ensemble built on merit rather than some outdated notion of "emotional unity." 

This past weekend, the Vienna Phil arrived in NYC - as they have each and every year since 1984 with the exception of 2020-21 - with music from the first three decades of the 20th century. With no principal conductor, they brought along with them one of their supposed favorites: fellow Austrian (and current Carnegie Perspectives artist) Franz Welser-Möst for the first time since 2017. Having recently announced his intention to curtail his conducting activities due to health issues, these concerts had a hint of wistfulness to them: Welser-Möst, 63, walked across the Carnegie stage much more gingerly than he has in the past.

Franz Welser-Most with the Vienna Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, 3/2/24
Carnegie branded these concerts as part of their ongoing "Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice" festival, despite the fact that only one work was actually written during that tumultuous period of German history (1918-1933). In recent years, it appears these annual Carnegie "festivals" have fallen victim to chicken-or-egg syndrome, less a purposeful enterprise than a loose organizing principle for programs often booked years in advance. Sure, you have your Max Raabe and Ute Lemper, but no one is kidding themselves that the Vienna Philharmonic is designing their programs - which they also played in Vienna last week and bring to Florida this week - around a Carnegie festival.

The one work which happened to be written during the Weimar Republic, Paul Hindemith's Concert Music for Wind Band (or, if you prefer, Konzertmusik für Blasorchester, 1926), opened Saturday night's sold out concert. It was admittedly strange to see the Perelman stage full of empty chairs save for the last two rows, occupied by the Vienna Philharmonic's world-famous brass section. Originally written as occasional music for military band, the music is a mix of circus-like bombast and jolly tunes that may or may not have been tongue-in-cheek, much like Shostakovich's music written under the Soviet regime. Blending flute, oboe and clarinets with brass and percussion, the music was transparent enough to articulate every last detail while sufficiently loud to penetrate the far reaches of Stern Auditorium; the trumpets were particularly clear and note-perfect. 

Franz Welser-Most with the Vienna Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, 3/2/24
Photo: Steve J. Sherman

The full Vienna Philharmonic - some 90-plus musicians - then took the stage for Richard Strauss' Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without a Shadow"), compiled from his rarely-performed 1917 opera (which returns to the Met next season.) This was a whole other sound world from the Hindemith: a swirling mass of romantic excess with lush strings, exotic winds, brilliant brass; even an organ and celesta took up real estate on opposite sides of the stage. Welser-Möst kept things under firm control, building the music to a tremendous climax before letting it slowly die away in the closing diminuendo. The audience responded with rapturous applause.

After a break - this was the only one of the three concerts with an intermission - the program continued with the far more thorny Variations for Orchestra (1928) by Arnold Schoenberg, his first 12-tone work for orchestra. Schoenberg once said, "My music isn't modern; it is merely badly played," and the Vienna Phil seemed to be up to the challenge, tackling the Variations' ungainly harmonics and disjointed rhythms as if it was a walk in the Prater. After a main theme, the nine variations which follow grow increasingly complex, contrasting crashing brass with dancing woodwinds. These culminate in a colorful finale that Schoenberg claimed was inspired by Bach but sounds like anything but, full of shrieking strings and dissonant chords with a final, feral blast that shocked this listener right out of his seat. I'm not sure that this is the sort of thing I'd choose to listen to at home, but you couldn't help but be awed by the Vienna Phil's virtuosic mastery of Schoenberg's kaleidoscopic music.

Franz Welser-Most with the Vienna Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, 3/2/24
Photo: Chris Lee

Ironically, the one work on Saturday's program which best evoked the spirit of "Dancing on the Precipice" wasn't even written in Germany. Composed in 1920 for Sergei Diaghilev's Paris-based Ballet Russes, Maurice Ravel's La Valse has become one of today's most prominent orchestral showpieces, albeit an odd one. Inspired by the Austrian waltzes familiar from the Vienna Phil's annual New Year's Day Concerts, Ravel turns these elegant dances into a grotesque parody, mirroring the collapse of the aristocratic world order during World War I. Opening with a menacing pulse reminiscent of John Williams' Jaws, the music soon swayed with the elegance of a Viennese ball. But soon, it became clear that something wasn't right: the hypnotic music was a bit too jovial, slowly building with a Boléro-like intensity to a final deafening roar - to which the audience responded with a roar of their own. While some listeners may have felt disappointed that Welser-Möst and the Vienna Phil didn't respond with an encore of a Strauss family waltz, it would have fallen flat after Ravel's epic deconstruction.

I wasn't able to hear Friday night's concert featuring Bruckner's 9th symphony and Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra (you can read about it here), but thanks to WQXR, I was able to listen to Sunday's closing performance of Mahler's 9th symphony at home. (The broadcast is available for streaming here.) Welser-Möst, who recorded the Mahler 9 with Vienna last year, took a relatively quick, drama-free approach to this visionary work, with its premonitions of death and the afterlife. The Vienna Phil's playing was superb and full of depth, especially in the sublime finale with it's long, slow fade at the end. Again, no encore, but from what I could hear no one seemed to mind very much as they left Carnegie to enjoy the rest of an unseasonably warm Sunday. And dream about this time next year, when the Vienna Philharmonic returns once again to revive this very special, uniquely New York rite of spring. I'll see you there.

Franz Welser-Most with the Vienna Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, 3/2/24More pics on the photo page.