By James L Paulk
NEW YORK – For its annual weekend at Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra focused on several of the composers it pretty much owns, especially Schubert, whose works appeared each evening, but also Brahms and Richard Strauss. These are the works that, on a good night, they play better than any orchestra in the world, and with Franz Welser-Möst conducting, these were good nights.
The opening concert, on Feb. 24, kicked off with what was billed as Schubert’s overture to Die Zauberharfe, an opera that flopped, but which is better known as the overture to Rosamunde, also a flop, for which the overture was repurposed. It’s a charming aperitivo by either name, and was used here to set up the American premiere of Time Recycling, a 25-minute piece by René Staar, a composer who is also a violinist in the orchestra.
A meditation on time and recurrence, Staar’s work incorporates bits of different musical styles, bossa nova for example, progressing to the 12-tone field. Staar likes to play around with extended techniques, and he does come up with some interesting, funky sounds. There was also a bit of theater, as the orchestra chanted and some musicians switched to whistles and others jumped up to play on simple percussion instruments. It came across as a noble effort, thoroughly professional, but derivative. Others have brought more depth and inventiveness to the same concept.
But then came a searing and spirited performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, with soaring horns and surging strings. Concertmaster Volkhard Steude performed the solo depicting the composer’s wife Pauline with just the right level of charisma and seduction. As Strauss examined his ultimate hero, himself, his adversaries, including the critics, were viciously depicted with harsh chattering sounds. Later in the work, it was possible to detect the signature sound of the Vienna horns. The orchestra still clings to a double cylinder valve design from the mid-19th century that gives the horns a distinctive liquid sound.
Ein Heldenleben is a a tricky work, demanding not just virtuosity but careful calibration of emotions, and Welser-Möst managed to navigate the big tunes with the right balance of transparency and sentiment, never gushy but rich and warm. Minor brass intonation problems aside, this was an exhilarating ride at a daring pace – the high point of the whole weekend.
That calibration was on display again on Feb. 25, when the orchestra was joined by pianist Rudolf Buchbinder for Brahms’ larger-than-life First Piano Concerto. The work depicts an epic human struggle, and Buchbinder conveyed this in a performance at once heartfelt and introspective. Welser-Möst and the orchestra were especially satisfying in the darker passages. The ensemble gave the work a solid, noble foundation. Their characteristic lush string sound contrasted perfectly with Buchbinder’s playing in the more delicate passages.
On this night the Schubert was his Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished). Though this is one of the most regularly programmed pieces in the repertory, the performance was so poised and full of small insights that it was like hearing it anew.
That was followed by a relative rarity, the suite from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, from the period when “barbaric” pieces were the rage — think of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which it resembles in style. Bartók’s work started life as the score for a ballet that was banned as immoral after its Cologne premiere in 1926. Nowadays it gets played mostly as a concert suite, without the scandalous dancers. But there is scandal aplenty in the vivid, dissonant score, here performed with energy and spirit.
The final concert, on Feb. 26, began with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), an achingly beautiful meditation on young love, spring, and moonlight. Written in 1899, the work came along just prior to Schoenberg’s plunge into atonality, and you can sense the Romantic idiom being stretched to its limits. Welser-Möst handled it all quite subtly, with a nice palette of color and tone.
If Verklärte Nacht signaled the end of Romanticism, one of the works that foretold its birth was Schubert’s monumental Symphony No. 9 n C (“Great”) the final major work of the weekend. Schumann referred to this, Schubert’s last work, as the first Romantic symphony. The “Great” C major is full of magical transformations. Simple tunes emerge into majestic ones, in torrents of sound. Welser-Möst again set a quick pace, and the orchestra was in its element.
The orchestra plays its final U.S. tour concert March 3 in Naples, Fla.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.