“Vienna, City of Dreams” in New York: Four Orchestral Concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall

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Diana Damrau closes the final concert of "Vienna, City of Dreams," while maestro Mehta looks on.

Diana Damrau closes the final concert of “Vienna, City of Dreams,” while maestro Mehta looks on.

Nowadays, visiting orchestras often play two or three concerts in New York, and, best of all, these are sometimes “curated” into themed series, like the VPO’s under Boulez and Barenboim a few years ago. This year, Carnegie Hall is presenting an exceptionally ambitious event, Vienna, City of Dreams, which goes beyond the Vienna Philharmonic’s unprecedented seven-concert series of symphonic and operatic works, and includes chamber music concerts, contemporary music, symposia, film screenings, and a few events including the visual arts, including Vienna Complex, a contemporary group exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum, which has organized most of the events outside Carnegie Hall itself, although no significant exhibitions of the art of the periods represented by the concerts at Carnegie Hall. (The other piece of Vienna in New York, the Neue Galerie, is offering nothing but limited free tours for ticket holders and discounts in their gift shop.) Theater and literature went virtually unrepresented. (A Viennese theater festival, including the Burgtheater, would have been welcome—magnificent, even.) A language barrier in our day of ubiquitous supertitles?

An overview is available on the Carnegie Hall site. I had to miss these outside events, but an Austrian friend reported that an avant-garde jazz event at (le) Poisson Rouge was poorly attended, and was in itself so unusual that she thought the organizers should have offered prospective audience members and attendees more information. In truth the various events did not hang together very coherently thematically.

In any case the leading idea of the three-week festival is summed up in Carnegie Hall’s announcement:

A glittering cultural jewel at the heart of Europe, Vienna has for centuries drawn artists, dreamers, and innovators from all corners of the continent to its dazzling intellectual and artistic life. With its famed art salons and coffee houses, Vienna supported a unique culture in which artists and scientists, firebrands and aesthetes, met and freely exchanged ideas. From this hothouse atmosphere emerged revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, literature, art, and music, reverberating around Europe and indeed the world.

There is not a lot of detail here, and one could say that this endeavor is ideologically impoverished. For this celebration of Austrian culture, where are their men without qualities? A loose, unemployed intellectual or two might give this some direction. But what does Austria as a nation have to offer on this level any more than the other national contributors to world culture? Just like our friend Ulrich, the original man without qualities, Vienna has competition with Berlin, who plan a massive New York presence in the autumn. At least their event has the advantage of precedence. But why this rather vague presentation of a great cultural center as a “city of dreams”?

The issues of the Second World War are still being rehashed, and investigations continue. There was some controversy about the position of the Vienna Philharmonic during the Third Reich. The orchestra has responded in a direct manner by engaging independent historians to investigate the situation, and their findings are published on the VPO website. The documentary filmmaker Enrique Sanchez Lanchez made an outstanding, fair, and detailed documentary film about the relationship of the Berlin Philharmonic to National Socialism, Das Reichsorchester; it is to be hoped that he or someone like him could do the same to bring the Vienna Philharmonic’s history to a broader audience. One can’t just rely on The New York Times in these matters, any more than on a documentarian with anything else than Sanchez’s research skills, work ethic, and integrity. In any case the current event brings New Yorkers much of what is to be cherished in Viennese culture, above all in the chamber and orchestral repertoire which is familiar today to American lovers of classical and contemporary music. We can perhaps count ourselves lucky to have escaped ideology with this unique opportunity to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in such luxuriance at Carnegie Hall.

With the Vienna Philharmonic we have heard and will hear the beacons of music made in Vienna: Beethoven”s Ninth, Bruckner’s Sixth, Berg’s Wozzeck, and Strauss’ Salome, Brahms’ Third Symphony and Haydn Variations, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and, as a final Busserl, a program consisting of a medley of “serious” and “popular” Viennese music under Zubin Mehta, in which Webern and Schmidt meet the Strauss family, Lanner, and Lehár.

Franz Welser-Möst

Franz Welser-Möst

Tuesday, February 25, 2014, 8 pm
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Vienna State Opera
Franz Welser-Möst, Conductor
Ricarda Merbeth, Soprano
Zoryana Kushpler, Mezzo-Soprano
Peter Seiffert, Tenor
Günther Groissböck, Bass
New York Choral Artists
Joseph Flummerfelt, Chorus Director
Schönberg – Friede auf Erden
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

Welser-Möst paired the Ninth with an early (1907, premiered, revised 1911) ten-minute choral work by Arnold Schönberg, Friede auf Erden, a setting of a poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, in which an angelic choir at the Nativity call for peace on earth. Meyer, a pacifist, contrasts this with the war and destruction that followed and closes with a prophecy that humankind will evolve beyond the habit of war. Meyer wrote this in 1886 as a Christmas poem, later publishing it in a pacifistic journal. In 1923, Schönberg in a letter to Hermann Scherchen called it “an illusion for mixed choir, an illusion, as I know now, in which I in 1906 [sic], when I composed it, I believed that this pure harmony among human beings was conceivable.” Friede auf Erden was Schönberg’s last tonal work, originally written for a capella choir, with organ allowed only in the most subdued way, to assist the choir in intonation. This was insufficient, as it turned out, and he wrote an orchestral accompaniment, which again was meant to be barely audible, and so it was performed at its premiere in Vienna in 1911 under the direction of Franz Schreker. Schönberg stressed that the orchestral parts were merely an aid, not an integral part of the music. There is a certain irony in the fact that in this first work of this important concert cycle by the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra should be superfluous! In any case, it is a very beautiful and poignant work, with the complex eight-part writing hovering back and forth between major and minor, between otherworldliness and violence in a most unsettling way. If you want to know what tonality sounds like when pushed to its very limit, listen to Friede auf Erden. Schönberg has certainly done that here. Our ears of course were turned to the Joseph Flummerfelt’s New York Choral Artists, who sang the fearsomely difficult work to perfection. As Jack Sullivan pointed out in his perceptive notes, they have recorded the a cappella version, and, to my ears, they showed no signs of needing the assistance of the eminent Viennese, although they did play splendidly, with some handsome brass playing towards the end. As we will see later, Franz Welser-Möst has developed into a master of structure and the dramatic way it unfolds in time. This is most obvious in larger works, like Beethoven’s Ninth or Bruckner’s Sixth, the locus classicus being Wozzeck, with its elaborate aggregation of classical forms. This complex short masterpiece benefitted from it as well, Welser-Möst focused on its constantly shifting harmonies and emotions and the way Schönberg built these fleeting, unstable elements into a solid edifice of sound.

The Ninth began not with a mysterious mist floating up from nowhere, but with a palpable, clearly audible pianissimo, in which we could hear the attacks in the strings’ repeated sixteenth notes over the pungent held fifths of the Vienna horns. This was the rich corporeal sound we are accustomed to hearing from this great orchestra. We soon learned that there was no stinting of dynamic range after this beginning; the climaxes were massive, almost Brucknerian in density and volume. As in the Schönberg, Beethoven’s oscillations back and forth from minor to major leant a precarious feeling, as if one were leaning over an abyss—a term that often comes to writers’ minds in this movement, including Mr. Sullivan. This is one thing we feel, as we listen to Beethoven’s thematically economical and tightly structured sonata form, which, typically for Beethoven, manifests itself as the drama of chord progressions elaborated within the scheme of the form. Welser-Möst’s mastery  lies in his ability to balance these divergent aspects a composition. His method is one of control—a control which makes no attempt to conceal itself, like Andris Nelson’s diametrically opposed approach to Strauss’ Salome.

With the second subject of the first movement the winds begin an anxious dialogue with the strings, with yearning upward lines which mesh all too readily with the stern dotted rhythms and jumps of the main theme and its derivatives. Often, through the development and conclusion of the movement, when the strings are in the foreground the winds continue to play their material as an accompaniment, lending a constantly changing color of brass and woodwind to the middle voices. In these Welser-Möst privileged somewhat the horns, enhancing Vienna’s rich strings with their warm color. Welser-Möst maintained the utmost clarity in these complex textures, without resorting to the sort of thin sound one might call “transparent”—anathema in the Musikvereinsaal, to be sure!

The Scherzo was monumental in dynamics and weight, but full of detail, managed as I have described above. In keeping with his insight into the dramatic aspect of musical form, Welser-Möst continued the cosmic dialogue of the first movement, giving the second return of the Trio and the coda their full value as parts of an argument.

The great slow movement proceeded broadly, with full scale and solemnity, although Welser-Möst took care to keep the Adagio moving, while allowing plenty of contrast with the Andante section. He was not inclined to lapse into any sort of dreaming or mysticism here, which perhaps should not be exaggerated in view of the music’s grounding in humanity. It is humanely spiritual rather than otherworldly. While the melodies unfolded with great beauty, thanks to Welser-Möst’s insightful, precise phrasing and the orchestra’s matchless playing, the deeper lesson was about the movement’s construction and its dialoguing contrasts.

In the choral finale, after the opening pandemonium, the introduction of the main theme in the low strings was solid, full of texture and color, with no hint of any airy manifestation from far away, as some conductors choose to play it. As in the other movements, Welser-Möst’s conception was a marvel of structure and coherence. He introduced a note of urgency as the movement built up to ever loftier states, preparing each succeeding section with a reserve of energy, and this enabled him to end with tremendous power as well as a sense of proportion.

The New York Choral Artists sang with both clarity and and excitement, but the solo quartet was mixed. Günther Groissböck began the movement in splendid form, with his powerful bass filling the hall. His diction was absolutely clear, and he treated the verses as if there actually were a message to be communicated and understood. Tenor Peter Seiffert also brought a strong, clear delivery to his part, and a handsome golden voice. Ricarda Merbeth, the soprano, certainly made herself heard, with a sharp, cutting voice, which lacked body and color. The mezzo, Zoryana Kushpler’s voice tended to get lost in the middle, and she didn’t make much of an impression at all. The diction of both was fairly muddled.

Beethoven’s Ninth has suffered by its ubiquity as a ceremonial work. We hear all too many stock performances for routine or dubious occasions, but in this case, following the decorous frivolity of the ball which actually opened Vienna, City of Dreams, its function was harmless enough, since the festival is primarily about music, and the performance was up to the highest standard, with Welser-Möst keeping everything focused on the most serious musical values. Jack Sullivan’s note was a healthy warning against taking the Ninth for granted. Even in my own lifetime, people have taken the old cliché about it being unperformable pretty seriously, not to mention its reputation for being unlistenable. Early critics were harsh on it, especially the last movement. Although its influence on composers made itself soon felt, it took generations of championship—above all Richard Wagner’s—for it to be more widely accepted among the public. Still, Shaw was able to complain that audiences attended it “not to enjoy themselves, but to improve themselves.” Sceptics remain even today. Gustave Leonhardt once remarked: “That ‘Ode to Joy’, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely puerile!” In truth there are a few gusts from the beer hall in the Ode to Joy. And a young man of a decidedly eurotrash mien seated next to me mumbled that it was “underwhelming.” I think Mr. Welser-Möst is well aware of the Ninth’s pitfalls. We should not accept humanity uncritically in any case.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014, 8 pm
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, Conductor

Mozart – Symphony No. 28
Johannes Maria Staud – On Comparative Meteorology
Bruckner – Symphony No. 6

Speaking of vulgarity, one of my colleagues who was seated next to me—a fine composer himself—complained vigorously about the occasional intrusion of vulgarity in Bruckner’s Sixth. I was interested to have my attention drawn to an issue which had never occurred to me in connection with the countrified professor.

First, Mozart, who was of course never vulgar, except in familiar conversation. Another irony of this celebration of Vienna was that the single work by Mozart in the series was a symphony he wrote in Salzburg, No. 28 in C Major, K. 200—although he wrote it either a couple of months or a little over a year after a visit to Vienna in the summer of 1773. The playing of the somewhat reduced Vienna Philharmonic was no less than we’d expect from them, but the performance did seem rather monolithic and driven, as if it were assumed that one should play Mozart’s early symphonies the same way one plays the late ones—not that one should flog them either. The symphony calls for more differentiation among and more space around the sections, livelier, more emphatic phrasing and more room to breathe around the phrases.

Johannes Maria Staud

Johannes Maria Staud

Johannes Maria Staud, the Vienna-trained composer from Innsbruck, now 39, came to the attention of Franz Welser-Möst several years ago and was appointed The Cleveland Orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer from 2007 to 2009. He wrote On Comparative Meteorology while in Cleveland, where it was premiered on May 28, 2009. Staud has dedicated the work to Maestro Welser-Möst and memorialized it to Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish writer of the 1930s and 1940s, whose work he deeply loves. He notes the author’s colorful, hyper-realistic language and his way of dissecting “reality into its individual components and put[ting] them together again in new combinations like a kaleidoscope, fractured by an individual consciousness for which prosaic literalism seems not to exist.” In Staud’s words, his work is an “attempt to trace the mysterious world of Bruno Schulz in a musical way, without duplicating or illustrating it.”

The title, however, is derived from a specific story, “A Second Autumn,” “in which the father of the narrator conducts the most peculiar studies of the parasitically rampant autumn wildlife and the specific climate in his area.” We would violate the composer’s indications, if we looked at this story too concretely, but it is worth remembering that it is as much about a neglected art museum and its moldering collection of Baroque paintings which have not stood the test of time. I can easily imagine Staud in his office in Severance Hall, across from the Cleveland Museum of Art, which at least at one time was all about art which had stood the test of time, perhaps making forays into the rougher parts of Cleveland to explore its junk shops and thrift stores for inspiration, with glances at the looming weather over Lake Erie, notorious for its sudden storms and mysterious water spouts.  If you read “A Second Autumn” (which I warmly recommend), remember that even if conservation and climate control can slow the decay of art to an imperceptible rate, it still goes on, and even museums are limited in what they can do to halt the change of taste. The caretakers of the artworks, too, age, get sick, suffer dementia, and die. Cleveland, with its northern European climate, which masks the sun almost continuously from October to May, and its plentiful Eastern European population, is surely an ideal place to read and ponder the works of Bruno Schulz, as I’m sure Herr Staud discovered!

The original version of “On Comparative Meteorology” consisted of a series of six short pieces divided by fragments from Schulz’s writing. Now in this revised version, it is a continuous work without text. It is atmospheric and absorbing, painted with a vast palette of sonorities, created by a very large orchestra, replete with exotic percussion. The work could not have been played more eloquently, with the gamut of tone colors, always vivid, assimilated into the Vienna Philharmonic’s characteristic luxuriance.

bruckner_5111

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony in A Major is a great work that is very rarely played. It is also the least recorded, with the exception of No. 2 and below, and I am surprised how little literature there is on it. By contrast, Sir Donald Tovey and Robert Simpson both express an almost childlike delight in the work, so wholeheartedly do they love it. Bruckner himself was especially proud of it, calling the both the “keckste” and the “kühnste” of his symphonies. Both words mean “audacious” to a certain extent, but the former could be better translated as “plucky,” referring to its relatively high spirits, and the latter as “courageous,” connoting something more of heroism and referring to the truly daring harmonies and progressions he built into his fabric. Therefore, once Tovey, Simpson, and Bruckner have given you the courage to accept this work, get hold of a good recording (e.g. Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony) and listen to it a few times. There is no need to fuss over alternate versions either. Bruckner only wrote one, which was published after his death. (This first publication, however, contains a cut in the slow movement recapitulation by his pupil Cyrill Hynais, who supervised the publication. (Tovey praised this cut highly, while Simpson deplored it.)

In my experience, Franz Welser-Möst established himself as a great Brucknerian in the Fourth he conducted at Carnegie Hall about a year ago with the Vienna Philharmonic, in Korstvedt’s 2004 edition of Bruckner’s final 1888 version. This was a marvel of pacing, alternating a steady pulse with persuasively planned and executed rubato, within a deeply considered concept of the work’s architecture. In the Sixth Bruckner had made progress with some structural issues which had presented difficulties in his several versions of the Fourth. Hence holding it together is perhaps less of a challenge for a conductor. Welser-Möst’s treatment of the opening ostinato, played with impeccable nuance and precision by the VPO violins floated the opening theme to perfection and paved the way for an excellent balance of tension, relaxation, and build-up throughout the symphony. His tempo in the first movement was slightly faster than what I am used to, and it took me a few moments to get used to it. There was no feeling of rushing in any case. It was only after the performance that I fully realized what Welser-Möst was trying to achieve. He sees a long line in this movement, mainly propelled by that initial triplet figure, and he was attempting to give it its full value by keeping the music in motion and reducing pauses.

The slow movement didn’t exactly drag either, since Welser-Möst wanted us to take in the shapes of the main subject as a unit. After that, he made plenty of room for the almost static transition into the lovely second subject in the major, and this he allowed to unfold with all the breath and space it needed. The Vienna strings and winds gave us wonderful pianissimi and moments of great inwardness and delicacy. This is one of Bruckner’s greatest slow movements, and here it was realized in a way entirely worthy of his inspiration. In the same spirit he showed great sensitivity and flexibility in his treatment of the shifting tempi, keys, and moods of the Scherzo and Finale, both of which included subtle, reflective, even somewhat crazed states of mind which didn’t find their way into some of his other symphonies. The Trio passes through its initial rusticity into complex feelings of yearning or perhaps desire. The finale in particular goes through a novel-full of changes before it crab-walks its way through dark and meditative states to its triumphant conclusion. Welser-Möst’s willingness to broaden his pace and delve into Bruckner’s progressions and the Philharmonic’s surpassing ability to play it with nuance, precision, and emotion made this an unforgettable Bruckner Sixth.

Franz Schubert at the keyboard.

Franz Schubert at the keyboard.

Saturday, March 15, 2014, 8 pm
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Juliane Banse, Soprano

Schubert – Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished”
Mahler – Symphony No. 4

I was unable to attend Andris Nelsons’ concert, mostly consisting of Brahms, and Christoph Eschenbach’s Saturday night with Schubert and Mahler can be dispatched fairly briefly. He was called in to replace the ailing Daniele Gatti. There was several weeks’ notice, but I have no idea how much time Eschenbach had to rehearse with the musicians. His uncharacteristically clear, careful beat in the Mahler suggests that it may have been minimal, not that there was egregious  confusion or sloppiness at any moment. The orchestral balances, which were as close to perfect as could be under Welser-Möst, Nelsons, and Mehta, were rather out-of-joint, especially in the Schubert, and harsh in the fortissimo tutti…and most of the real vulgarity of the festival, I’d say, was concentrated into this evening.

Eschenbach began the concert with quite a different technique in his reading of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, which I’m sure the VPO can play in their sleep. Perhaps that is why he conducted the work with heaven-storming gesticulations I haven’t seen since Bernstein. He dragged out the opening chromatic theme almost, but not quite ad absurdum, encouraging the celli and double basses to produce an exaggerated, if very striking tenebrous sonority, thanks to their playing. Dynamics were extreme, calling for aggressive pokes and agitation of both arms. Eschenbach was making the most of each section, paying due attention to their harmonic and dramatic building, without giving much heed to the transitions. He clearly had a concept of the overall structure, but he conveyed it subliminally, as he dove into the moment. He luxuriated in the lyrical second subject, and it was exquisitely played, but, yes, it turned out to be in fact a fine haunch of hare drowned in an excessively rich sauce. The slow movement took off at an appropriate andante con moto, but Brucknerian dynamics brought it down. Just too much noise or blustering or whatever you want to call it. I had already gone into shutdown mode before the end of the first movement. The eurotrashy fellow who seemed to be haunting me at the concerts yawned widely not too far from the beginning and told me afterwards he thought the second movement vastly inferior to the first. The mystique of this work’s history as a rediscovered unfinished work gave it immense popularity among audiences, as well as a temptation for conductors to exploit it through portentous or bombastic interpretation. Eschenbach either fell into this old trap head over heels, or at least wanted to lead his audience into it..

Since I had a powerful encounter with Mahler in James Levine’s incomparable performance of his Seventh Symphony, which is one I can relate to with enthusiasm, I feel I can say what I think about the Fourth, which I cordially detest. Mahler’s ironical crust around its cheap tunes and syrupy cutesiness goes no further than the exotic sea salt in a trendy candy bar. I may well be wrong, but I suspect Eschenbach understands this, because he gave Mahler’s whoring a wholeheartedly meretricious performance, pushing every bit of preening and attitude to the limit, like a louche vaudeville show. For one thing, this created a sense of cynical fun, which always appeals to the Viennese, and the orchestra played with terrific spirit, making this an exceptionally satisfying performance. The playing of the strings, the wind soloists, above all the horns and the first oboe, were prime VPO. And I have noted that Eschenbach really conducted and didn’t just perform, as he did in the Schubert. If one were to fault the performance in some objective way, I’d say that he lost focus a bit in the slow movement.

Another false step—a trigger for inappropriate mirth—was the timing of the entrance of Juliane Banse, at the great climax at the end of the slow movement, which seemed to present the mezzo as an apotheosis of some sort. Since the Fourth exudes a perfume of Vienna’s women of the streets, whom Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms knew so well, her entrance in a gown which left her overdressed in some parts and underdressed in others, with frizzy unkempt hair, aroused laughter in many quarters of the hall. She sang with forced enthusiasm, which may be all anyone can honestly muster for this trash, with a rich, plummy voice one doesn’t always hear in it, but without the overall control and finesse that can bring it off for more than the most besotted. Her shot blue gown, by the way, was interesting as a design, partaking of both eighteenth and nineteenth century motifs, a rococo décolleté and a sizeable bustle, which required some careful navigation in the midst of the orchestra.

The final concert brought the audience back into the catbird seat. Seemingly a hodgepodge of light music aus Wien, it was actually a brilliant mixture of the serious as well, not to mention the familiar and the unknown. Zubin Mehta conducted in his own unique way, with which he can bring flow and beauty to the challenging, clarifying relaxation in the midst of excitement, a perfect sense of pacing, satisfying balances, and a sense of discovery to his music-making. I left the concert not only with a sense of having been at a great party, but with serious respect for Mehta’s musicianship.

Sunday, March 16, 2014, 7 pm
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta, Conductor
Gil Shaham, Violin
Diana Damrau, Soprano
New York Choral Artists
Joseph Flummerfelt, Chorus Director

Otto Nicolai – Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor
Anton Webern – Six Pieces, Op. 6
Nicolai – “Moon Chorus” from The Merry Wives of Windsor
Hugo Wolf – “Der Feuerreiter”
W. A. Mozart – “Ave verum corpus”
Franz Schmidt – Intermezzo from Notre Dame
Theodor Berger – Legend of Prince Eugene
Erich Wolfgang Korngold – Violin Concerto
Josef Strauss – Delirien Waltz, Op. 212
Eduard Strauss – Bahn frei! Polka, Op. 45
Johann Strauss Jr. – Frühlingsstimmen Waltz, Op. 410
August Lanner – Steyrische Tänze
Johann Strauss – Cachucha Galop, Op. 97
Franz Lehár – “Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss” from Giuditta
Joseph Hellmesberger, Jr. – Kleiner Anzeiger Galop, Op. 4

Encores:
Fritz Kreisler – “Schön Rosmarin”
J. Strauss Jr. – “Klänge der Heimat” from Die Fledermaus
J. Strauss Jr. – “Unter Donner und Blitz” Polka Schnell, Op. 324

The only music I began to feel a bit tedious in the concert was Nicolai’s overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor, however unpretentious, charming, and elegant its execution. This was followed by entirely different, Anton Webern’s Six Pieces, Op. 6, in which Zubin Mehta truly showed his mastery. He gave the brief movements their full scope within the incomparable sonority of the Vienna Philharmonic. What’s more, he maintained a natural flow, which only helped the integrity of the individual movements, as well as the listener. I can’t say I’ve heard a performance I’d call better than this one. The Moon Chorus from the Merry Wives brought us into a sequence with included a reading of Wolf’s Feuerreiter that got everything right, gave full justice to its rhetoric and changing textures, and produced brilliant singing from the New York Choral Artists. The section concluded with Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, in a broad, sensitive reading, again beautifully sung, and this brought the first section to a close.

The middle section of this long concert  (almost three hours and a quarter) consisted of the more conservative classical music of the early to mid-century. Berg and the avant-garde had already been represented in Welser-Möst’s magnificent performance of Wozzeck. The sequence began with the first act Intermezzo from Franz Schmidt’s opera, Notre Dame, based on Victor Hugo’s novel. On the rare occasions when this opera is excerpted in concerts, this is the most often played gobbet, an extensive tone poem in its own right. The music is gorgeous, and Mehta conducted it with sensitivity and perception. This is sensuous, seductive music with a rich color palette—operatically perhaps a sort of middle ground between Schreker and Hindemith and Korngold—but neither the conductor nor the audience were inclined to condescend to it. Notre Dame has been successfully revived in Dresden and other houses in Europe. It’s time Americans knew it better as well. Notre Dame is certainly prime material for Leon Botstein and the ASO, and perhaps a full production at Bard. A tone poem by Schmidt’s pupil Theodor Berger presents another opportunity for Maestro Botstein. His Legend of Prince Eugene of Savoy, first performed in 1941, was fascinating in its unexpected polytonality and prescient color palette, while creating a portrait of the great military leader reminiscent of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel. The Austrian folk and patriotic tunes Berger quotes have been taken as a gesture of protest against the Nazi Anschluß of Austria in March, 1938. (The German heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen, was launched the following August.) Enthusiastically supported by the some of the greatest conductors of his time, above all Wilhelm Furtwängler, Theodor Berger is virtually unknown today. This short work, as splendidly as it was performed, is not enough! I can envision one or two Vienna Pre-War/Post-War programs from the ASO.

The section closed with a priceless performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto of 1945, written after a successful career with Warner Brothers, when the composer wanted to rehabilitate himself as a classical composer. Korngold had powerful muscles in composition and orchestration at his disposal, and the sophistication of his writing is astonishing—not that one can ignore certain meretricious qualities already mentioned above, which brought him far more success in Hollywood than Stravinsky could ever imagine. But what made this work such a delight to all of us, including me, when I gagged at Mahler’s Fourth Symphony? I’d say Korngold addressed the work with a sincerity I can’t find in the Mahler. He learned how to use music to create cinematic atmosphere through orchestral color and harmony. In his violin concerto he was honestly trying to distill the best into a serious, but exceedingly flashy concerto for violin, perfect for the great technician, Jascha Heifetz, who continued to champion the work. And there’s a certain old-world discretion to the work, if that’s the word, that one doesn’t find in Korngold’s brash American contemporaries. The snobbery of 1945 rejected it, but it certainly went over splendidly in Gil Shaham’s hands in 2014. His brilliance and relaxed attitude, showing his enjoyment of this fiendishly difficult work, was entirely winning, both for Korngold and for him. Fritz Kreisler’s “Schön Rosmarin” was a perfect encore.

After the second break, it was all party, but intelligently organized, with only one work by Josef Strauss Jr., preceded or followed by equally congenial works by his father and siblings. Diana Damrau put on a great show with her vocal contributions. although I don’t think she was at her best until her encore, the Csárdás from Die Fledermaus. At least there she could shape a line properly without belting out the high notes and throwing away the middle.

The audience applauded the orchestra warmly as they appeared on stage and as they left. If this grand series of concerts was intended to adjust a few loose stones in ancient and much-loved bridges it succeeded in putting them in place—at least as long as those waltzes keep spinning around in people’s heads. The evening was terrific fun—from the Merry Wives to Damrau’s conductorial antics, but an exploration as well. I heard some fine music that was new to me. I could not help thinking of a very rare recording I sadly no longer have of the Vienna Philharmonic playing waltzes by Johann Jr. at the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947, when they were just pulling themselves together after the War. The conductor was Bruno Walter. The healing gesture of this music-making was almost unbearably moving. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine why things didn’t go so far on this recent Sunday evening.

To think that many of us remember the orchestra most fondly from recordings made within a decade of end of the Second World War, when it was still suffering from wartime losses of personnel and the post-war difficulties of hiring replacements! There was a time in the 1970s when one might fear that the Vienna Philharmonic was following an international trend towards bright, inexpressive playing. Today they are back within their traditional methods, and it is uplifting to think we can look forward to a glorious future of the tradition, whether under a Welser-Möst, a Nelsons, a Mehta…or a Marta Gardolinska, who has recently finished her training as a conductor in Vienna. Otto Klemperer, who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic often, said that tradition is nothing more than the last bad performance (Eschenbach’s Schubert was a perfect example of this at work.), but, interpretation aside, tradition is to be cherished in playing of this exalted caliber.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.