After slack start, Welser-Most, VPO reach the heights with Bruckner
The second Vienna Philharmonic concert in Carnegie Hall’s “Vienna: City of Dreams” festival, Wednesday night in the Isaac Stern Auditorium, was a mix of that city’s music, old and new. An unintentional theme, perhaps: the performances themselves were a mix of the good, the bad, and the indifferent.
Spanning a range from the Classical period to the contemporary world, conductor Franz Welser-Möst led a program that opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 28 in C major, K. 200, continued with a recent composition by Johannes Maria Staud, On Comparative Meteorology, and finished after intermission with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6. The chart of musical success literally rose through each, starting with a deficit and then rising to a great height.
Welser-Möst, at least as a visitor to New York, can be a maddeningly inconsistent musician; there seems to be a direct, proportional connection between his personal interest in a piece and the rewards of its performance. On the evidence, his feelings about the Mozart symphony are perfunctory.
The playing, amazingly enough for an orchestra known for its sonic beauty, simply sounded bad. Balances were all off in that there were essentially none. The strings were warm but stuffy, the woodwinds were barely audible, the horns overpowered the rest of the orchestra in the one-dimensional texture. The experience was like listening to music while suffering from both a head cold and a fever.
Conceptually, there was just the dutiful running through of notes. Or sprinting through them: the tempos, especially in the opening Allegro spiritoso movement, were far too fast. If there had been sufficient ideas behind them, some argument, they would have been stirring. Instead, much of the symphony went by like Wile E. Coyote spinning his legs in space, trying to keep from plummeting. The Presto finale finally caught some fire, but the damage was done.
The local premiere of Johannes Maria Staud’s piece, written in 2008-09 and revised in 2010, managed to be both satisfying and disappointing. In the program notes, Staud states his credo: “Whoever denies the new its right to exist … can be compared with the gourmand who every day eats his fill of his favorite dish—and yet one day perishes from malnutrition,” a pugnacious and slightly insecure argument for new music. Maybe something was was lost in the translation.
Staud’s piece is new and old, and while it comes nowhere close to obviating the Classical repertoire, it’s attractive enough on its own terms. The music describes moments from short stories by Bruno Schulz, putting the composition in a tradition of musical narratives 200 years old.
The form is also not new, a series of miniatures strung together, like Schumann’s Carnaval. The harmonic language is contemporary, tonal but with enough extended chords and insistent dissonance to maintain a shifting sense of harmonic direction, a postmodern narrative. Staud also makes liberal use of effects like glissandos.
His orchestration is excellent: transparent, colorful and combining instruments to make eerie, intriguing sonics. The VPO played beautifully, with polish and commitment and a complete understanding of the aesthetic and intellectual challenges of the music. The clarity and conviction of the music making indicated both sufficient preparation and sufficient cogitation from the conductor. While On Comparative Meteorology is not as revolutionary as Staud’s argument leads one to hope, it’s a fine piece of craft.
Anyone fortunate enough to witness the memorable series of Bruckner performances that Welser-Möst led with his Cleveland Orchestra in the summer of 2011 at Avery Fisher Hall knows that this music brings out the best in this conductor. Wednesday night, the playing of Bruckner’s Sixth was fantastic.
Welser-Most’s leadership was an ideal blend of the contradictory elements these unique, astonishing symphonies demand: the need to allow the music to reveal itself gradually, to accumulate details, while also driving it with sufficient forward motion so the episodic structure holds together. The Sixth particularly needs this, as there are weak passages along with the intense, powerful drama. In particular, the finale, after an inventive opening statement, churns its wheels before reaching another one of Bruckner’s thrilling codas.
Welser-Most began with a lively tempo, the strings softly eliding the opening rhythm. The feeling was exciting, and full of burgeoning suspense for the grand orchestral gesture that comes in the first minute of the piece. That had a sublime, alpine glory, rich and beautiful but with the muscular roughness that Bruckner’s music needs, and that this conductor has mastered.
The Adagio was gorgeous, the Scherzo lively. One thing that is so admirable about Welser-Möst’s Bruckner is his sense of weight and proportion; he manages to maintain a bright, shining orchestral sound in the thickest stretches, and his rhythms and phrases are always light-footed. He also managed a subtle and deeply musical sense of modulation of tempo, expressive without mannerism.
The playing throughout was shapely and quick, the VPO’s sound beautifully full and blended, the warmth and body of the horns enfolding the players and hall, the music reaching out to shake the seats. There was a welcome silence after the final chord, the audience allowing the reverberations of the music and playing to sink in.
Franz Welser-Möst leads the Vienna State Opera in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, 8 p.m. Friday night. carnegiehall.org/vienna.