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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Concert Review: Sticking to his Strengths

The Vienna Philharmonic plays Mozart and Bruckner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Franz Welser-Möst.
Photo by Nikolaus Similache.© 2012 The Cleveland Orchestra.
For the second concert of the Vienna: City of Dreams Festival, the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Franz Welser-Möst chose a program squarely in the comfort zone of this storied orchestra. Symphonies by Mozart (No. 28) and Bruckner (No. 6) framed the first Carnegie Hall performance of a Johannes Maria Staud's On Comparative Meteorology. This was an ambitious program for Mr. Welser-Möst, as the symphonies chosen are rarely played in concert.

Here, the Vienna players' Mozart (they dusted off the Symphony No. 28 from 1774) lacked charm. Leading a larger-than-usual Mozart orchestra with an expanded string section, Mr. Welser-Möst chose a gormless approach to the Allegro spiritoso. Mozart's harmonic subjects were present, but sounded dry and drained of any meaning. The stately Andante and the minuet were better, but the pell-mell Presto sounded academic and uninvolved, a disappointment.

Perhaps the orchestra members were distracted by the prospect of playing Mr. Schaud's piece, which was written in 2009 and dedicated to Mr. Welser-Möst. On Comparative Meteorology is a large-scale tone poem in multiple movements, which uses a tremendous orchestral force and a vast array of exotic percussion to create the effects of falling water, bird-songs and the rumble of clouds in the distance. More concrete tonal ideas came from the other sections of the orchestra, building to a crescendo and then dwindling away to silence.

The most entertaining part of On Comparative Meteorology was the nimble, ballet-like movements of  five active percussionists. Three players alternated between marimba, xylophone and vibraphone while another took up duties on the timpani. A "lion's roar" sounded at one point, and the (legendary) giant Vienna bass drum was beaten and rubbed. There were solos for sleigh-bells, tam-tam, angklung (a bamboo instrument from Indonesia) and bronze "opera" gongs. A player picked up a violin bow to play the edge of a cymbal, and a second pianist damped the strings of that instrument by hand before sitting down himself to join the sonic assault.

The Sixth Symphony ("The Philosopher") is the least performed of Bruckner's late major works. Here, Mr. Welser-Möst opted for a fast tempo in the opening movement, moving from a string ostinato into the full surge of the first main theme. As this thematic idea thundered forth from a quadrupled brass section, the Vienna players sounded greatly improved. For the first time in this concert series, they sounded engaged and interested in the music, digging into its thick muscular texture and following the conductor closely through the development. In the recapitulation, brass and strings sounded better balanced as Mr. Welser-Möst stirred them into the work's first mountainous peak.

In the slow movement, the repeated ostinato theme is taken for a slow walk by the strings, with the woodwinds following closely. This expands into one of Bruckner's loveliest creations, a ruminative "dark night of the soul" that is occasionally interrupted by flashes of revelation from the brass choir. The Ländler dance movement was played with aggression and precision by the Vienna forces, who paused in the assault for a duple-time trio section. This central part of the movement spotlit the crack horn players of this orchestra, with their unique, old-fashioned Viennese horns sounding serene and pure.

Bruckner's obsession with the music of Richard Wagner led him to lace his symphonies with quotes from that composer's operas.  In the finale of the Sixth, it was a great surprise to hear a three-note motif from the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. (The effect was like discovering that a staid church-goer's missal was being used to hide a dirty magazine.) This three-note chromatic idea was repeated with obsessive intensity until it yielded to a series of re-workings of the main ideas from the first three movements.  The players charged into the last pages of the symphony. As the motto theme surged beneath cascades of trumpets and horns, it yielded to an impressive series of orchestral climaxes, powerful, muscular and with just the right hint of obsessive devotion to something beyond this world.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.