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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Concert Review: An Angel Came Down

The Vienna Philharmonic's matinee at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Frank Peter Zimmermann and his 1711 Stradivarius. 
On Sunday afternoon, Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic concluded their three-concert stand at Carnegie Hall with two works by Austrian composers that have a deep association with the orchestra. The concert featured Alban Berg's Violin Concerto with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Anton Bruckner's epic Fourth Symphony, known as the Romantic.

The concerto was Berg's final completed work. It bears the dedication "to the memory of an angel." Berg's angel was Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. Work on the concerto interrupted the completion of the third act of Berg's Lulu, and the composer died four months before its premiere.

With all that history, it was up to soloist, conductor and orchestra to craft a performance worthy of that legacy. They succeeded, with Mr. Zimmermann playing the work's complex tone-row with a soulful, searching tone that delved beyond the complicated mathematics of Berg's serial composition. He was ably supported by Mr. Welser-Möst and the Vienna players, soaring through the ascending first half of the first movement and capering through the eerie half-dance that followed.

In the beginning of the second movement, Mr. Zimmermann poured virtuoso technique into the dizzying plunge for solo instrument that forms the work's largest cadenza. The music swirled and eddied around him, a dark vortex of sound surrounding the lone beacon of his violin. The orchestra rose to a new level in the final section. As Berg transmutes his twelve-note row into a  chorale (that quotes Bach) Mr. Zimmermann's violin ascended, uplifted and transcendent to a glowing final phrase. He took an encore, a hushed, reverent performance of the Andante from Bach's Violin Sonata No. 2.

The Bruckner Fourth is often held up as the composer's most "accessible" symphony, both in terms of length and having some sort of guide to its thematic content. It was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1880, with the legendary conductor Hans Richter on the podium. (Moved by a rehearsal performance, Bruckner reportedly gave Richter a thaler coin as a tip, suggesting that he use it to drink a glass of beer to his health.)

Here, the stars of the symphony were the Vienna horn players, who continue to employ the traditional narrow-bore instrument in F instead of the modern orchestral horn. These players gave noble voice to the big main theme of the first movement. Mr. Welser-Möst proved apt at building the sonic foundations of the piece, layering themes to create a titanic effect at the movement's climax.

The conductor chose a light-footed approach to the Adagio, emphasizing the transparency of the orchestration in the composer's somewhat successful attempt to evoke the mysteries of courtly love. The third movement, with its lifted chorus of hunting horns again challenged those players, who responded aptly with noble, high tones. All these themes came together in the finale, as Mr. Welser-Möst whipped the shroud from a dazzling mural of sound. With a conclusion like this, no Strauss encore was necessary.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats