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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Concert Review: It Was the Bottom of the Ninth

The Vienna Philharmonic opens Vienna: City of Dreams.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Terry Linke © 2010 The Vienna Philharmonic.
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a cornerstone of the concert repertory, a natural choice for the Vienna Philharmonic to open Carnegie Hall's Vienna: City of Dreams festival. On Tuesday night, the orchestra arrived in New York to begin their much-anticipated six-performance residency with a performance of the Ninth under Austrian conductor (and favorite son) Franz Welser-Möst.

The concert opened with the Arnold Schoenberg choral work Friede auf die Erden, ("Peace on Earth.") This was a far cry from the composer's later experiments in atonality and serialism. Schoenberg created a moving, surging chorale, setting the text in a complex, polyphonic style over a densely written orchestration. Mr. Welser-Möst led the singers of New York Choral Artists and the Philharmonic forces in a potent performance--one that could make even the most jaded subscriber change their mind about Schoenberg and the true nature of his artistic achievement.

With only a brief pause to re-seat the orchestra players and the full chorus, the Ninth followed. The descending intervals that open the first movement were played with a sweet, searching tone, but felt rushed along. The declarative forte of the main subject was blurred and raucous in tone, undermining its dramatic effect. This problem recurred every time these chords were recapitulated in this first movement. With each re-appearance, trumpets and horns sounded slightly "off" from each other's beat, clashing at the edges of their respective notes and creating a disturbing "echo" effect. However, the answering melodies in the woodwinds and strings were crisp and cleanly played, creating a hushed, dramatic effect.

The  "forte problem" continued in the Scherzo, as the orchestra danced in a way that suggested a tipsy celebration of life. Firm timpani-strokes were again answered by those ragged brass chords, with the woodwinds giving voice to sweet melody. It sounded as if the Philharmonic players--or possibly their conductor of the evening--could not decide between two approaches to the symphony: raucous chaos or serene order. The trio section, with the Viennese horns carrying the melody and answered lovingly by the low strings, was the best part of the first half of this symphony.

Matters improved considerably in the Adagio as conductor and orchestra explored one of Beethoven's most mysterious movements. Here, its searching principal subject was given dolce treatment, with delicacy and song-like phrasing from strings, horns and winds. While most performances of this movement are solemn and hymn-like, Mr. Welser-Möst achieved a rustic tone, with echoes of the folk-songs of Beethoven's beloved countryside. This idyll was briefly interrupted by the arrival of the insistent, slow knocking of the brass and timpani at the movement's climax.

Before moving on to the choral finale, it is worth examining a possible cause for the problems in the early movements: they may have been caused by  deliberate, (if unusual) interpretive choice on the part of Mr. Welser-Möst. Evidence for this possibility includes the conductor's familiarity with this orchestra (he is the current music director of the Vienna State Opera) and his predilection for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner (who used Beethoven's Ninth as a template for all of his symphonies). It could be further argued that Mr. Welser-Möst was seeking to demonstrate the forging of "order" (in the trio of the Scherzo and the slow movement) from the "chaos" represented by the muddled chords, but that is mere speculation.

The dissonant, slashing fortissimi that open the Finale were again muddled and blurred, with the clash of tonalities set off against the grumpy recitative of cellos and basses. As the musical argument continued (through reminiscences of each of the first three movements) hope grew that conductor and orchestra were indeed making a deliberate statement that would cohere in its last pages. That feeling of optimism increased as the stage-left doors opened and the evening's four soloists (soprano Ricarda Merbeth, mezzo Zoryana Kushpier, tenor Peter Seiffert and bass Günther Groissböck) marched purposefully onto the stage. When Mr. Groissböck sang his solo, (magnificently, it should be noted) without bothering to open the leather folder of sheet music that he carried) the performance finally sprang to life.

The Vienna Philharmonic players did themselves proud in this last movement, expertly supporting the soloists, the chorus and the complex set of variations, fugue, and ultimately double fugue that Beethoven chose for setting Schiller's Ode to Joy.. Peter Seiffert delivered a magnificent, heroic solo in the Turkish March. The massive recap of the main "Joy" theme had power and a visceral emotional impact. This yielded to the mysterious final section, a contemplation of the cosmos in the symphony's home key of D minor that set the stage for an energetic double fugue. With his face red with exertion, Mr. Welser-Möst spurred his players into the crazy-fast final section, thundering down the last stretch and bringing this interesting, if troubled performance home to its finish.

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