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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.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Concert Review: Quantum of Sadness

The Vienna Philharmonic perform Schubert and Mahler.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christoph Eschenbach.
Photo by Eric Brissaud © 2014

The Vienna Philharmonic returned to New York last week. But last night was the concert where the venerable orchestra, currently in the midst of Vienna: City of Dreams a three week celebration of all things Austrian at Carnegie Hall finally played at a level equal to their stellar international reputation. It might have to do with the two works programmed: Schubert's two-movement Symphony No. 8 in B minor (known popularly as the Unfinished Symphony) and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4.

Some of the credit for these improvements might also be given to conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Mr. Eschenbach learned his craft from the late Herbert von Karajan, a conductor beloved by this orchestra. For this concert, the players were reconfigured from their "normal" seating. Basses and cellos were moved to the conductor's left. The second violins moved to stage right. The Schubert, which opened the evening seemed to benefit from this new arrangement and indeed, the entire orchestra sounded refreshed, involved and invigorated.

In the first movement, Mr. Eschenbach chose a glacial tempo, laying out the three initial themes the the listener's consideration, taking his time to highlight the importance of the nervous little wind melody that is central to this piece. This meticulous approach paved the way for the famous cello theme, a melody that sounded both nostalgic and mournful in this context.

Nobody's really sure why Schubert left this symphony at just two movements. (The manuscript, discovered in 1865, was written five years before the composer's death.) However, the  is one of the most profound statements in the composer's canon. Here, Mr. Eschenbach chose a stately, almost ceremonial tempo that allowed the unique tone qualities of this venerable orchestra to shine forth. He succeeded in drawing the audience into the very private world of this music, concluding with a profound, serene sadness in the last bars.

The Fourth stands, Janus-like at the end of the cycle of symphonies that Mahler wrote based on songs from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. While the first movement's thematic material draws on and expands ideas from the three Wunderhorn symphonies that precede it, the music also hints at the miracles to come in Mahler's future. There are fragmentary glimpses of the Fifth, Sixth and even the Seventh, hidden in the rich orchestral details and brought to light by Mr. Eschenbach n this glittering performance.

From the shook sleigh-bells and very Viennese violin waltz that start the Fourth Symphony, Mr. Eschenbach was much more brisk. In fact, this was energized Mahler, with the quick pace emphasizing the dance rhythms that pervade this movement.  It is one of Mahler's most satisfying creations, always offering rewards to the listener on a repeat encouner. For the following Scherzo, concertmaster Rainer Hoenick played the "Freund Hein" violin part, on a second fiddle tuned a half-step up to create the eerie specter of Death as accompanist. He was answered by vital and melodius playing from the winds in the central trio in a performance that gripped the listener with a sense of impending doom.

This appearance by the Grim Reaper paved the way for the somber slow movement, a lengthy set of variations that Mahler uses to explore every musical possibility within its principal theme. Here, Mr. Eschenbach slowed down once more, taking a leisurely tour through the winding paths of cellos and bass clarinet and stopping occasionally to lead two stupendous emotional climaxes. At the second, in a neat bit of theater, soprano Juliane Banse arrived onstage. She would be needed for the final movement.

The last movement of the Fourth is one of the Wunderhorn songs: Die Himmlische Leben ("The Heavenly Life"). It depicts Heaven as a children's paradise, full of good things to eat and saints and angels merrily engaged in kitchen industry. However, there is an undercurrent of mourning to this song, which was delivered with bright and unvarying tone by Ms. Banse. Mr. Eschenback and the orchestra captured the bitter irony of this music with slashing chords and little comments in the strings, the angst of those minor notes depicting the grim truth behind the poem's cheerful words. The final bars were soft, profound and moving.

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