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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Concert Review: New Songs, Old Tricks

The Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst. Photo © 2009 The Cleveland Orchestra.
On Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic gave the second of three concerts this weekend. The program featured the Carnegie premiere of Lied, a new piece by composer Jörg Widmann. This was framed by playful compositions by Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss: the former’s “Little” Sixth Symphony and the latter’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche.

Maybe it was the prospect of introducing Mr.Widmann’s work to a conservative Carnegie Hall audience that can be downright hostile to modern concert music, but the Schubert lacked the sense of fun that one associates with this symphony. Yes, the driving Rossini-like rhythms and interplay between winds, strings and brass were performed in a melodious, correct manner. But under Mr. Welser-Möst’s baton, the four movements lacked the elements of humor and rhythmic snap that separate a competent performance from a great one.

Mr. Widmann’s creation proved to be a challenge for both players and audience. Before its start, Mr. Welser-Möst faced a problem of his own. With the orchestra ready to play, he turned on the podium, fixing a gimlet eye on a couple struggling to find their seats in the parterre. Once they were seated, he returned his attention to the orchestra and Lied began.

This proved to be a deceptive, eternally shifting tone poem that seemed constantly together in its own way. Mr. Widmann (the program explained) drew inspiration from the songs of Schubert. But any melodic development in the woodwinds and strings was unceremoniously cut off by the shriek of a bowed violin, an eructation of the tuba or (most irritating) a harsh clatter-clash-clang on the gong. What themes did emerge sounded inspired by the later works of Mahler and the symphonies of Alfred Schnittke. For about 25 minutes, developing themes were planted, nurtured and encouraged to grow before being gleefully stomped out of existence by the battery and brass.

Happily, those culprits were on their best (most raucous) behavior for the energetic Till Eulenspiegel that ended the program. Strauss’ playful tone poem chronicling the adventures of a legendary German rogue was delivered with full-throated horns and the signature E-flat clarinet theme (representing Till himself) had wry charm. The galumphing brass battled with the snares and timpani for Till’s life, which ended in a final, strangled gasp from the clarinet.

Following the warm reception given this last performance, Mr. Welser-Möst agreed to an encore. This proved to be a warm loping Johann Strauss waltz, with lush, caressing melodic strands and the dance rhythm plucked out in the violins. Perhaps there is an argument for Viennese tradition after all.

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