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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.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Concert Review: From Sunup to Twilight

Valery Gergiev conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev conducting.
 Photo by Alberto Venzago © 2016 Columbia Artists Management Inc.
Saturday night's Carnegie Hall appearance by the Vienna Philharmonic was the second of three concerts given by the orchestra in New York on its current American tour. It also marked the fourth of five concerts last week for Valery Gergiev, the St. Petersburg-based conductor whose presence on a bill guarantees a small but vocal group of protesters outside the venue shaming the maestro for his ties to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

An episode from Russian history opened Saturday's concert with a lush and measured reading of Dawn Over the Moscow River by Modest Mussorgsky, presented here in a revised orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich. This piece is better known as the Prelude to Act I of Khovanschina, Mussorgsky's sweeping five-act opera that depicts the rebellion by the Streltsy riflemen during the rise of another strongman: Peter The Great.

This essentially a theme and variations, built around a simple, falling folksong and showing Mussorgsky's command of having instruments mimic the sounds of the sun rising over Red Square. The chattering of bird-song, the trudge of patrolling Streltsy guards, the tolling of great bells (played with a large suspended metal chimes, bass drum and gong, struck together) create a portrait of serenity, a deep breath before the bloodshed of the opera's five act.

Mr. Gergiev and the orchestra then offered New Yorkers their first chance to hear Masaot/Clocks Without Hands, a new tone-painting by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth. The piece showed the Vienna players' forte (and fortissimo) in modern music, with diaphanous tone clusters coalescing from brass and strings and the percussion supplying underlying eructations of sound. In its last section, the piece into Mahlerian territory with a drunken, lurching waltz. Its fairground sound somehow more disconcerting than the noises that had preceded it.

The second half of the program was devoted to bluten-brocken from Wagner's Götterdämmerung, the Dawn intermezzo, Siegfried's Rhine Journey, the Funeral Music and finally the Immolation Scene with American soprano Heidi Melton standing in as Brunnhilde. The Vienna players are proud of their Wagner: this was the opera played in 1944 right as the Staatsoper was bombed, and this was the orchestra selected to record the four Ring operas for Decca with Georg Solti: the best-selling opera recordings of all time.

Mr. Gergiev led a performance that began with quiet strength and mounting power, as the clarinet theme symbolizing Brunnhilde unfurled and was taken up by the strings. The mighty brass section sang out Siegfried's upward-thrusting motif before taking a lurching jump-cut to the start of the Rhine Journey. Here, a fugue for strings, high woodwinds and percussion depicted the hero's transit of the magic fire around Brunnhilde's rocky home, and the broad, bellowing brass portrayed the swell and ebb of the Rhine River. As the orchestra sang out the Rhiengold motif, it quickly subsided into dark mutterings in the low winds.

The conductor paused a moment before launching the funeral music with two soft taps on the timpani. This performance showed the flexibility and power of the Vienna Philharmonic brass, with the horns augmented by a quartet of Wagner tubas and the heavy brass by the temporary return of former principal trombone Ian Bousfield to that section. The grieving yielded to solemn procession as Ms. Melton rose to sing the Immolation. This she did, with a powerful cutting tool of a voice, albeit one that spreads with a wide vibrato in climactic pages. As she expired, Mr. Gergiev conducted the orchestral balm of D flat that ends the Ring. Conductor and orchestra eschewed the encore. There's no way to follow Götterdämmerung.

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