Vienna Phil in Carnegie Hall

By Sedgwick Clark

The Vienna Philharmonic is in town for Carnegie Hall’s “Vienna: City of Dreams” Festival. Undoubtedly, music critics ranging from the Times to cub bloggers will swallow the orchestra’s p.r. bandwagon of tradition and aver how its magnificent sonority has remained the same over the years. I first heard the Vienna Philharmonic on April 3, 1976, at Carnegie Hall. The late Claudio Abbado led Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven (as opposed to the second level of hell that Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Leningrad Phil had taken me three years before in Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, discussed in last week’s blog). The Viennese string players attacked their instruments with a vengeance, but without the scrunching that the New York Phil had accustomed me to, and the brass players’ faces flushed brightly as sheer warmth and resplendent sound enveloped the audience.

That Abbado performance came to mind as the VPO cellos entered quietly in the second bar of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony on Wednesday, the 26th. The illusion, under conductor Franz Welser-Möst, didn’t last. The fortissimo tutti, when it burst out, was shrill. The Vienna Philharmonic, shrill? Yes, believe it or not, from parquet T1, anyway.

The Sixth doesn’t deserve to be Bruckner’s least performed mature symphony. The first movement strides forward with majestic confidence. The British Bruckner-Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke thought the Adagio the composer’s finest; its eloquent solemnity might have profited from a broader tempo. The Scherzo is uniquely weird—nightmarish, even—among Bruckner scherzos, with the plink-plonk pizzicati of the Trio bringing to mind Franz Waxman’s scoring of the scene in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where mad Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) toasts a human skull in a crypt. The finale drives ahead with unclouded jollity, the only instance of such abandon in his mature symphonies.

The Sixth is not one of the Austrian composer’s complicated symphonies, and Welser-Möst’s straightforward musicianship is not the place to find Brucknerian mystery or magic. His well-chosen tempos, care over the characteristic Bruckner pauses, and refusal to litter the score with unnecessary unmarked ritards would make for a good introduction to the piece. But not the VPO’s infelicitous strings and crass brass.

The first half of the Vienna Philharmonic’s Wednesday night concert at Carnegie Hall was the essence of elegance and tonal beauty. Mozart’s Symphony No. 28 zipped along with grace and transparency. Authentic practitioners would find the number of players rather largish, but I would gladly hear all of Mozart’s 41 with these artists.

Bravo to Welser-Möst for inserting a contemporary work between Mozart and Bruckner. Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud’s On Comparative Meteorology (2008-2009; rev. 2010), dedicated to the conductor, was fabulously played. Beginning with echoes of Berg and continuing with Varèse, “a large orchestra is disassembled and re-combined into a continually evolving kaleidoscope of changing instrumental colors, ranging from ethereal delicacy to violent intensity,” writes annotator Janet E. Bedell. Given a performance of this caliber, I wouldn’t mind hearing it again. Whatever happened to the stodgy, old Vienna Philharmonic?

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

2/28 Carnegie Hall. Berg: Wozzeck, Op. 7 (concert performance). Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic/Franz Welser-Möst, cond. Matthias Goerne (Wozzeck), Evelyn Herilitzius (Marie), Herbert Lippert (Drum Major), Norbert Ernst (Andres), Wolfgang Bankl (Doctor), Herwig Pecoraro (Captain).

3/1 Carnegie Hall. R. Strauss: Salome, Op. 54 (concert performance). Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic/Andris Nelsons, cond. Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salome), Falk Struckmann (Jochanaan), Gerhard A. Siegel (Herodes), Jane Henschel (Herodias), Carlos Osuna (Narraboth).

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