In Vienna, Heady Mix of Messiaen, Boulez, Schubert

The Vienna Philharmonic, in its venerated concert hall, the Musikverein, which opened in 1870.
The Vienna Philharmonic, in its venerated concert hall, the Musikverein, which opened in 1870.
By Matthew Gurewitsch

VIENNA — Mandarin French modernism to start, then a mighty slab of Schubert. Leading the opening programs of the Vienna Philharmonic’s subscription season in late October and early November at the venerable Musikverein, Ingo Metzmacher and Daniel Barenboim followed the same template, to strikingly dissimilar effect.

Ingo Metzmacher led works by Messiaen and Schubert.
Ingo Metzmacher conducted works by Messiaen and Schubert.

With Metzmacher, a maestro too little known in America, an introduction is in order. An inveterate seeker, he gravitates to repertoire (whether standard or arcane) that wrestles with big questions. His first book, the manifesto Keine Angst vor neuen Tönen (Be not afraid of new sounds, 2004), documents a passion bordering on obsession with composers — Schönberg, Ives, Ligeti among them — who have charted continents of sound previously undreamt of. A second book, Vorhang auf! (Curtain up!, 2009), is his personal Baedeker to masterpieces that have permanently altered the operatic landscape, from Monteverdi’s  Orfeo, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Weber’s Der Freischütz to Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s intractable Die Soldaten, and Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos, which was as yet incomplete when Metzmacher wrote about it. Translations into English are long overdue.

The theme for the evening in Metzmacher’s latest outing with the Vienna Philharmonic (heard on Oct. 26) was the raising of the dead. First up was Olivier Messiaen’s somber fresco Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, scored for woodwinds, brass, and percussion, consisting of five meditations on verses from the Bible. But to say that the music illustrates the texts would miss the mark. Rather, it shares the abstract quality one associates with expressionist painting: layering, gesture, contour, and contrast tell stories not to be captured in words.

Under Metzmacher’s unforced yet fiercely concentrated direction, the cryptic messages struck the ear with spellbinding eloquence. Long-drawn, arching solos of transcendent transparency hung in air on seemingly limitless supplies of breath. Tam-tams, tubular bells, and drums of every description evoked crashing gates, tolling chimes, and a jazzy clip-clop of demons out to raise hell. Here, the voice of a lone woodwind would hover in a boundless void; there, against a disconcerting backdrop of industrial clatter, the memory of just such lone voices would split into bundles of hovering voices moving in parallel. The playing was uniformly above reproach; the percussion, ordinarily underemployed in the orchestra’s standard repertoire, had a field day.

Music by Pierre Boulez shared a program with Schubert's 9th.
Music by Pierre Boulez shared a program with Schubert’s Ninth.

Then came Schubert’s Lazarus, D. 689, a “religious drama” in three acts of which only the first and part of the second survive. Rarely performed, it has fascinated musical historians for vocal writing thought to anticipate by decades innovations of Wagner. Choral interludes — delivered with exemplary poise on this occasion by the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien — are concise. Arias as such are likewise brief and few in number; what predominates is neither recitative in any conventional sense nor full-blown arioso, but richly accompanied, intensely dramatic speech in music.

The action, such as it is, takes us from the sickness of Lazarus to his death and the immediate aftermath. The savior never appears; no miracle occurs. But the score — part oratorio, part cantata — is miraculous in its own right, full of deft pictorial touches, ingenious instrumental detail, and unforeseen spikes of emotion. Metzmacher emphasized the experimental character of the music, soft-pedaling Schubert’s classicism to prioritize a flyaway flourish here or sudden lull there. In this, the performance conveyed something of the spontaneity or improvisatory properties we sense in studying a composer’s first sketches.

As the moribund Lazarus, the Australian tenor Steve Davislim headed a capable slate of six soloists. As Martha, the dying man’s excitable sister, the German soprano Christiane Libor was memorable throughout, but she clinched her victory where the fragment breaks off, in mid cry, in mid air, at fever pitch, sailing off the cliff into silence with heart-stopping aplomb.

Barenboim’s program the following week (heard on Nov. 1) began not with a single work but with an informal triptych of short selections by his longtime colleague and associate Pierre Boulez. Mémoriale (for flute, three violins, two violas, cello, and two French horns) formed the centerpiece. The outer panels consisted of Livre pour cordes (for string orchestra) and “…explosante-fixe … originel” (for a chamber ensemble of strings, winds, and synthesizer), both derived from the string quartet Livre pour quatour, written decades earlier.

In Paris, one might expect to hear this music played with chilly intellectual detachment befitting its underlying mathematical spirit. Way off their turf, the virtuosi of Vienna invested the pages with unexpected poetry. The super-subtle string and wind writing brushed the eardrum like moths’ wings fluttering towards the flame.

Daniel Barenboim is a favorite with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Daniel Barenboim is a favorite with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The 13 minutes of Livre pour cordes unfolded for the most part as a single diaphanous web shot through with all manner of cryptic nuance; yet here and there the strings managed to mimic brass and even percussion. “…explosante-fixe … originel,” which crunches the same material into four minutes, conjured up flurries and wisps against a field of white noise. One listened to both as if examining precious sheets of hand-laid paper from Japan under a loupe for the “imperfections” that are its defining glory. Karl-Heinz Schütz, the solo flute in Mémoriale, took to the idiom with particular felicity, not so much lone star as first among equals. Overall, however, the piece sounded opalescent but aimless, scurrying off in so many random directions as to go nowhere: music’s answer to Brownian motion.

The second half was devoted to the monument Schubertians like to call the Great C major, D. 944, a symphony as daring and prophetic in its way as Lazarus, yet a mainstay of the canon. Barenboim accorded it the full masterpiece treatment, surveying the majestic architecture from Olympian heights, judiciously apportioning weight and mass, at all times reveling in the orchestra’s signature warmth and glow. Glorious as the opening movements were, textures thickened midway through the Trio of the Scherzo, and a certain torpor set in. But with the swirling figurations that launch the finale, Barenboim caught a second wind. A hint of blur in the strings at this juncture was no fault. Best of all was the cosmic dance that followed, unfurling with the dynamism, gravity, and grace of the planets in orbit.

After nearly three decades as an international cultural commentator working from New York, Matthew Gurewitsch relocated in Maui four years ago to begin a new chapter. For an archive of his work past and present, please visit