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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Concert Review: The Nostalgia Factory

The Vienna Philharmonic returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni © IMG Artists.
The annual arrival of the Vienna Philharmonic under the arched plaster vault of Carnegie Hall is a cause for New York's most conservative music lovers to rejoice. After all, this is an orchestra that rarely plays music that isn’t at least 50 years old, and wouldn't think of playing those unruly creations of the 20th century that can cause older patrons to ride out part of a concert in Carnegie's comfortable Citi Café.

Friday night was the first of three VPO concerts at Carnegie this weekend. As led by Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, the world-famous orchestra did not disappoint. The program opened with the Overture to Poet and Peasant, an operetta by Viennese composer Franz von Suppé that has been forgotten by everybody...except the Viennese. It proved to be rich in melodic invention, with a noble opening in the brass followed a profound discourse for the solo cello. A lilting waltz followed, pointing the way to a blazing finish.

Richard Strauss is chiefly remembered for his tone poems and operas. However, what followed on this program was an intelligently curated selection of his lieder with full orchestral accompaniment. Mr. Welser-Möst chose four examples from different periods in the composer’s long career, tying them together with the common themes of love and human need.

The evening’s soloist, Austrian tenor Herbert Lippert has a long connection with this orchestra, having sung on the stage of the Vienna State Opera and served as a former member of the Vienna Boys Choir. However, his lyric voice was not always up to the stern challenges presented by this music. (It should be noted that Strauss's vocal writing does not always suit the tenor voice. Most of his songs were written with the female voice in mind. )

Mr. Lippert produced some  beautiful passages, most notably in the last pages of the third song Verführung. But the strain was audible in the heroic passages that capped Winterliebe, the last of the four selections. To his credit, Mr. Lippert recovered with an impressive, dulcet encore that ended the first half of the concert on a positive note.

The Vienna forces returned with Antonín Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony. This is the darkest example of the composer's mature symphonic output. Its first movement has a weight and noble seriousness that makes most musicologists think of the composer's friend and colleague Johannes Brahms. However, it was Mr. Welser-Möst's intent to make the first thematic statements sound like...Dvorák,. He emphasized the folk-like, Bohemian qualities in the expansive first movement, giving the extended development a visceral earthy quality that had a charm all its own.

This momentum was maintained in the slow Adagio, where the folk-like hymns of oboes and horns were rudely interrupted by a seemingly impromptu celebration from the trombones. The bucolic mood continued into the Scherzo, where Dvorák's dance rhythms had a quality of solemn joy. The Finale is built around a deceptively simple seven-note theme subjected to a wide array of variations had muscle and spring to its final pages, with triumphant horn fanfares conveying the music's essential optimism.

Given the short program, the Vienna players took two encores. First, more Dvorák: the Slavonic Dance in E Minor Op. 72 No. 2. A melancholy theme plays against the plucked rhythm of pizzicato strings. A central section provides some lift, but the final section sinks back into the hot-house atmosphere. The second was what the audience expected, a quicksilver polka from the waltz king Johann Strauss. For the Vienna Philharmonic and their admirers, it's always New Years Eve somewhere.

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