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Friday, April 26, 2013

Concert Review: The Bad Boys of Vienna

Alan Gilbert Conducts Mozart and Bruckner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Emanuel Ax onstage with the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2012 The New York Philharmonic.
For most of the 18th and 19th centuries (not to mention the 20th), the press and public of Vienna, Austria were taste-makers in classical music. Even today, a successful premiere in that city can ensure a long and prosperous composing career. Conversely, a fiasco could ensure a major artistic setback, or even penury for the artist.

On Thursday night, Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in the second of three concerts featuring works by Mozart and Bruckner. Both Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 (played here by Emanuel Ax, in his last concerts as this year's Philharmonic Artist in Residence) and Anton Bruckner's Third ("Wagner") Symphony failed at their at their premieres. Both works have survived to gain footholds in the standard symphonic repertory. Programmed together, they form a fascinating study of Viennese musical history.

The C Major Concerto was written in 1786, and is the last of twelve mature concertos that the composer wrote specifically for public performance in Vienna. Unfortunately, the failure of this work to catch on with the public led to a sharp decrease in Mozart's income as a concert pianist, triggering the financial crisis in his last years. This work finds Mozart incorporating the solo piano part with the orchestral accompaniment in a new way.

The first thoughts from Mr. Ax were almost off-hand, commentary on the grand orchestral statement made in the opening bars of the movement by Mr. Gilbert. Those bars repeated, with the piano winding itself into the woodwinds' tutti in a series of liquid arpeggios that built tension and allowed Mr. Ax to indulge in filigree over the orchestra. Successful performance of this movement requires cooperation, and the close connection between soloist and conductor made this opening movement an engrossing experience.

The following Andante starts with another an eloquent symphonic statement from Mozart. The pensive, slow theme was tossed between horn, winds and strings before the piano finally entered. Mr. Ax played with a sweet lyricism and a light, quicksilver touch, putting meaning behind each of his carefully placed notes. The final Allegretto allowed both men to indulge in a martial, but playful figure, with room for the soloist to express the long, soulful solo passages alternating with moments of pianistic grace.

The C Major Concerto damaged Mozart financially. But it was the catastrophic premiere of the Third Symphony in 1873 that caused Anton Bruckner (then a conservatory professor in Vienna) to experience public ridicule at the hands of the public and the press in that city. Leading the assault was critic Eduard Hanslick, who hated the fact that the composer had chosen to dedicate the work to his musical arch-nemesis, Richard Wagner. The fact that the composer (ineffectively) conducted the premiere at the end of a marathon concert (which ended with most of the audience leaving early) only made matters worse.

Bruckner's perseverance and faith in his own work is shown by the 1889 revision of the Third, conducted here by Mr. Gilbert. Though this version of the score strips out most of the explicit Wagner quotations that drew Hanslick's wrath in the first place, it remains a bewildering piece, with massive, block-like walls of horns and strings that loom at the listener like the walls of a legendary fortress. Mr. Gilbert was in his element, willing these slabs of sound into existence and controlling the pace of their construction with a flick of his baton and a waggle of his wrist.

The next three movements are not quite as formidable. Here, the Philharmonic strings made the lyric passages of the Adagio sound with a slow, mournful tread that eventually mounted to a first climax of blazing woodwinds and brass. Then, the music halted before beginning the climb again. Eventually, the repeated ascents ended in a series of hushed chords, a Die Walküre quote that had somehow escaped the editor's eye.

The whirling Scherzo that followed (with athletic timpani playing from soloist Markus Rhoten) may have evoked Wagner's galloping shield-maidens. The work ended with a triumphant finale, using the considerable lung power of the Philharmonic brass to make the composer's musical point. The Third Symphony may never be a core repertory piece, but a performance like this can do much for its reputation.

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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.