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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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Concert Review: A League of Their Own

The Vienna Philharmonic return to Carnegie Hall. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Fischer king: Adam Fischer leads the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 Carnegie Hall.
The first thing you notice is the sound.

It starts in the strings, warm, rich and wine-dark. The tone of the instruments is a little deeper and fuller than other ensembles. Then the horns, the Viennese horn in F that is narrower in bore and harder to play and keep in tune, with an antique valve design that allows for easier legato playing. The oboes are different, shorter and wider than the French instruments played by most professionals. Finally, there's the kettledrums: there are just two. They are small by modern standards, beaten copper bowls with goatskin heads. They have a pert voice of their own.

This is the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. The famously tradition-bound, close-ranked Austrian orchestra, which is drawn from that city's State Opera orchestra and exists without bowing to a music director or chief conductor are modern musical mavericks, throwbacks who emphasize a classical conservatism with a proud and stubborn self-regard. Sunday's matinee concert of Haydn and Mozart was the second part of their annual visit to Carnegie Hall, and the second of two performances under the baton of the conductor selected for the occasion, Mr. Ádám Fischer.

This unique Viennese tone quality was readily apparent in the Haydn opening: the Symphony No. 97. From the launchpad of the first slow bars, the orchestra leaped into the opening Sonata Allegro. (Beethoven would recycle this trick in both his Fourth and Seventh.) this performance presented Haydn as a bold experimentalist, who used the laboratory of his twelve London symphonies to explore new horizons in what was at the time, still a relatively novel genre.

Notable here was a passage in the second movement where concertmaster Rainer Honeck led the first violins in a passage played sul ponticello (very close to the bridge.) This gave the normally sumptuous strings a rustic, reedy sound, contrasting with the support of the rest of the orchestra. Mr. Honeck was also featured in the third movement, playing a part written an octave above his compatriots. The finale was a cannonball blast of pure joy, with the storms of the opening transfigured into a manic movement of momentum and invention.

Next, the orchestra was joined by the afternoon's solo guest: Leonidas Kavakos for the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5.. This concerto is nicknamed the "Turkish" (the low strings imitate Janissary percussion by playing col legno in the finale.) Mr. Fischer allowed Mr. Kavakos his spotlight in the thrilling cadenzas that peppered the first movement, but the best moments came in the short passages where the solo violin, the concertmaster and the principal second violin formed a tiny string trio and played concertante style against the tutti of the full band. Mr. Kavakos followed his heroics with a charming Bach gavotte, its ending slow and drawn out to highlight the lyric quality of the notes.

The second half focused on Mozart again. Jupiter is the nickname slapped on the last of the composer's forty-one symphonies. Here, Mr. Fischer led the players through a detailed account of the score, setting the innovations before the listener like jewels on velvet. The horns engaged in dialogue with the strings, supported by the copper kettledrums,  spinning forth Mozart's musical arguments. As always with late works from this composer, one wonders idly where music would have gone had Mozart lived a longer lifespan, but such thoughts were banished during the elegant and yet gripping finale, written around a deceptively simple four-note figure that keeps dropping in and out of the main melodic line.

It wouldn't be a Vienna concert at Carnegie without encores, and the two selected were very different works by Mozart. First came the Cassation for Orchestra in G, composed by the 13-year-old Mozart. Mr. Fischer brought out the sweet tonality and innocent-sounding melodic developments. For their part, the players seemed more focused here than in the middle movements of the Jupiter. He followed it with a cheerful walk through the Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, a bold and invigorating account that did what an encore should do. It left the audience wanting more.

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