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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.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Concert Review: The Dust Buster

The Vienna Philharmonic plays Haydn and Brahms.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Statue of Liberty play: Andris Nelsons.
Photo by Stu Rosner © 2013 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The Vienna Philharmonic is known for its unique orchestral sound, idiosyncratic choice of instruments and general conservatism in its choice of repertory. On Thursday night, the famed orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall for the first of three concerts wrapping up this year's Vienna: City of Dreams Festival. The program was one to bring joy to the average concert-goer, an unadventurous combination of Haydn and Brahms.

Injecting life into these proceedings was conductor Andris Nelsons, making his second appearance of this three-week festival. The new-minted music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Nelsons recently conducted Salome to some acclaim earlier in this festival. At 35, he stands at the vanguard of the current generation of "young gun" conductors who have brought much-needed fresh air into the stuffy atmosphere of the concert hall in the past decade.

The Symphony No. 90 is the first of Haydn's so-called "London" symphonies, full of the good humor and melodic craftsmanship that were Haydn trademarks. However, the Vienna players sounded like they were on auto-pilot. The opening movement was  rhythmically square, with cautiously placed notes that lacked energy or inspiration. The Andante was an improvement, saved by some beautiful playing from the solo flute and its accompanying oboes. The third movement, a minuet, plodded through its first section before some eloquence (from the oboe again) was finally heard in its central Trio.

The orchestra found its footing in the merry Allegro assai that ends the work, although the coda of that movement was marred by some unexpected entries to the concert hall. (A pause before the last set of chords triggered applause, and the house staff thought the work was over. To be fair, it sounds very much like a final cadence--one of Haydn's musical jokes.) Mr. Nelsons stopped, looked behind him at the offenders, and then conducted the last chords with style.

The bridge between Haydn and Brahms was crossed with the thoughtful choice of the latter's Variations on a Theme by Haydn, the work that effectively cemented the young Brahms' reputation in writing for orchestra. (Most of his early successes had been piano music or chamber works.) In fact, this piece, (which is based on a theme that may or may not be by Haydn) began life as a work for piano four hands. There are eight variations on the main theme, and the whole work is like a one-movement concerto for orchestra with the spotlight shifting between different sections of the ensemble.

The  "Haydn" theme had a chorale-like beauty, with the full orchestra offering that trademark Vienna sound, lush and rich and redolent of a departed age. The penultimate movement had the winds sounding like a miniature portative organ, playing the swiftly moving variation as if it was a complex juggling act. The finale, with its stately chorale over a repeated passacaglia was conducted with an eye toward the future, as Mr. Nelsons reminded listeners that it was Brahms and his dense musical thought that inspired the later works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

That approach continued in the second half of the concert, a broad-shouldered yet eloquent performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 3. The first movement was powerful and broad, with Mr. Nelsons slashing the air and urging powerful chords out of the orchestra. He gave the string players room to explore the dark corners of the complex development before surging back into the stutter-start rhythm of the motto theme. The quiet Coda looks ahead to how the last movement will end, and contained some sublime, restrained playing.

The best playing of the night came in the slow movement, with an eloquent and almost meditative quality established by the collective work of the Vienna wind players. That meditative air continued in the famous Poco adagietto, with the mournful horns hinting at the composer's inner anguish. This was Brahms at his most personal. The snaky theme of the final Allegro started in the low strings, with the rest of the orchestra joining in a musical argument between the cellos and the collected ensemble. The last bars, where the stern motto theme comes back one last time, were hushed and almost mystic in their quality. Appropriately, the Vienna players offered a Strauss encore, the Seid umschlungen Millionen Waltz dedicated to Brahms himself. In that music, no-one is better.

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