Sounding The Long Fall Of Belle Epoque, From Bruckner To Schoenberg

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Vienna Philharmonic performing Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor and Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK – Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst has played a key role in the 2023-34 season’s Carnegie Hall series devoted to the Weimar Republic. In three March concerts, he led the Vienna Philharmonic in major works of Bruckner, Berg, and Mahler that traced an arc from late Romanticism to the radical turn of the Second Viennese School.

An advocate for Bruckner’s music for decades, Welser-Möst has recorded Symphonies 4-9 with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he has served as its longest-tenured music director. Over the years, I have attended Welser-Möst’s concerts with Cleveland in both Vienna and New York. In the Bruckner symphonies, the Cleveland Orchestra under Welser-Möst has achieved a high level of technical perfection and elegance and a sound that is rare for Bruckner on this side of the Atlantic.

In their Carnegie Hall presentation of the Ninth Symphony on March 1, Welser-Möst indulged a Vienna Philharmonic tradition with Bruckner that goes back to the time of the composer himself. That distinct sound was immediately present at the beginning of the symphony, along with the conductor’s preference for clarity and cohesion at a quick tempo. Despite some very small inaccuracies in the first movement, the orchestra was in fine form, and the symphony unfolded with expressive brass and great balance among the instrument groups, from the very elegant and elegiac to some raw sound in the Scherzo. Every repetition had a different color, or just a different “breath,” including the final movement with its mystic quality.

Following the Bruckner Ninth, Welser-Möst conducted Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra without intermission or even a brief pause, as if to provide the missing fourth movement of Bruckner’s symphony. This scheme also emphasized the close relationship between the Romantic Bruckner and the Second Viennese School.

Franz Welser-Möst has served as the longest-tenured music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. (Photo by Chris Lee)

From the elegiac Bruckner, the atmosphere changed immediately to the harsher tones of Berg’s music, with Welser-Möst clearly demonstrating the structure but also the lyrical aspects of the latter. With its final brutal beat, the characteristic huge wooden hammer sealed the end of an era. For the purposes of highlighting historical context, capping the Bruckner with the Berg proved to be very effective.

Even if past generations of the Vienna Philharmonic were critical of the Second Viennese School, the orchestra has a unique relationship to this music. Whereas the focus on the architecture of the music points to new forms, the sophistication and the expression of the orchestra’s sound reflect the origins of that music in the Romantic and post-Romantic tradition and create a unique atmosphere. That was demonstrated at the second concert (March 2) in the precise, analytical but also atmospheric sounding performance of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31.

In a discussion in the past with an older member of the Vienna Philharmonic, who was not playing in the current concerts, somebody mentioned Ravel’s La valse. The distinguished musician said, with discomfort: “That piece!” But it is an ingenious piece of music, another replied. And the musician said, “It is, but it represents the death of Old Austria.” Ravel’s La valse represents, according to historian Carl Schorske, a musical showcase for the decline of Vienna’s and Europe’s belle epoque and for what Arnold Schoenberg has called “the death dance of principles” (“der Totentanz der Prinzipien”).

At the Vienna Philharmonic performance, Ravel’s work started as a quite pleasant, typical waltz that sounded marvelous — no wonder, as played by this Viennese orchestra, the valse experts par excellence. This mood continued for a little while, and when the first dissonances, arrhythmias, disruptions, and harsh sounds entered the scene, there was not quite enough to challenge the aura of pleasant music or alert the pleased ear to what was coming, as the more agreeable sounds eventually returned.

The Vienna Philharmonic was part of the ‘Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice’ series. (Photo by Chris Lee)

But then the dark side of drama, fear, and some kind of rhythmic uncertainty approached, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes at the same time with the consonant sounds as a sort of a grotesque mélange taking over. The orchestra gave such a masterful performance that I felt in my body the same rhythmic instability as well as the anxiety and pulse of the last part of a piece. Similar feelings must have been shared by the whole audience at the sold-out Stern Auditorium. After the thrilling finale of La valse, conductor and orchestra received a long standing ovation.

It is quite remarkable how this piece summed up the theme of the Weimar series. But if Ravel’s La valse narrates the tragic story of the violent death of Europe’s belle epoque, Mahler’s swan song, his Ninth Symphony, which occupied the whole of the final concert (March 3), serves as a kind of a prophecy for what was to come. One can argue that Mahler had in some respect a tragic life; destiny seemed to have spared him to see the end of the world as he knew it. Mahler’s symphonies not only reflect the crisis of the empire and prescient mourning for the fate of Europe, but they are also a palimpsest of its multifaceted ethnic, social, and artistic environment. They express the anxiety and the sorrow of death, a motif quite present in Mahler’s life and in the high mortality of 19th-century society.

The orchestra started at a low volume with the first violins playing discreetly — perhaps to magnify the contrast that developed very elegantly to the first “explosion.” Although there was a sense of restraint in Welser-Möst’s austere expression, the slow parts were extremely fine and elegiac, with depth and weight. He conducted the fast tempos with precision, and the colors that the orchestra maintained at all speeds created, especially in the quick parts, an intense musical experience.

The second and third movements, with their large variety of tunes, moods, and colors, showcased the orchestra’s qualities as well as the individual groups and soloists. The balances among the instrumental sections, in clarity of sound and sophistication of each phrase, were remarkable. If one followed as the conductor turned his baton and focused attention on a particular group of instruments, one could detect and clearly hear their contribution to the cohesive whole.

The brass retained all its expressive power in an outstanding performance, with Ronald Janezic leading the Viennese horns while merging with the woodwinds at their finest. Flutists Karl-Heinz Schütz and Günter Federsel (piccolo) stood out in their intense expression. The young principal violist Benjamin Beck added an excellent solo. And while it is not possible to cite every musician of that extraordinary ensemble, it is worth mentioning three of the increasingly numerous female members of the orchestra: harpist Anneleen Lanaerts, clarinetist Andrea Goetsch and, violinist Albena Danilova, the first female concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Danilova’s confident Mahler solos were impressive, especially in the third movement, for their distinctly personal approach.

The expressive strings of the beginning of the last movement brought back the serene and somber atmosphere that remained until the end. After an immaculately played crescendo, the final slight notes of the strings (“Aussterbend” – Dying Out) brought the symphony to silence. The audience waited out the quiet, took a breath, and then finally was able to express its appreciation for a rare musical encounter.