Carnegie’s “Vienna: City of Dreams” festival off to a drowsy start under Welser-Möst

Wed Feb 26, 2014 at 1:21 pm
Franz Welser-Möst led the Vienna Philharmonic  Orchestra in music of Schoenberg and Beethoven Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Franz Welser-Möst led the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in music of Schoenberg and Beethoven Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Franz Welser-Möst can be a frustrating conductor. There is no question as to his abilities—under his stewardship, the Cleveland Orchestra continues to rank among this country’s most disciplined and powerful ensembles. He is capable of leading performances of great intelligence and grace, but often it feels as though he needs more than anything for someone to light a fire under him.

Welser-Möst’s conducting of Schoenberg and Beethoven Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall felt aimless from the first downbeat.

Part of the city-wide “Vienna: City of Dreams” festival, the concert was the first of a series of presentations to take place at Carnegie Hall celebrating the musical institutions and heritage of Vienna. He had at his disposal an extraordinary group of musicians in the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Choral Artists, and the first piece on the program, Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden showed off their considerable strengths.

Written in 1907, the piece long predates Schoenberg’s intense serialist explorations. A lush tonality permeates the work, but there are dark glimmers of dissonance that foreshadow what would later become his liberated atonality. The Philharmonic’s playing was rich and velvety, the Choral Artists’ singing full and free, while Welser-Möst seemed to merely wander through the piece. The sheer beauty of the sounds coming from the stage was striking, but the conductor’s ho-hum approach engendered daydreaming rather than rapt attention.

The Ninth Symphony felt similarly detached, and Beethoven done only halfway leaves a profoundly hollow and unsatisfying feeling. The Ninth is, of course, ingenious, its radical innovations having been written about extensively. In many respects it is a highly cerebral work, but it should hardly be academic in performance. Welser-Möst’s interpretation felt more like a point-by-point walkthrough than an organic artistic experience.

In most familiar readings, the opening has a feeling of suspense. Falling waterfall figures and tremolos in the strings intensify and gradually brew into a storm that is joined by thunderous percussion and brass. Welser-Möst’s reading felt like a sleepy awakening that never fully woke up, lacking real excitement both in the build-up and in the moment of arrival. This movement is an image of stillness turning into turmoil, but this performance was motionless, thanks in large part to flaccid articulation.

The second movement dug in with more conviction but it, too, missed the point. Alternating between maniacal stomping and manic glee, there is a terrifying wildness about the Ninth’s scherzo. In Welser-Möst’s vision it was controlled, albeit only in its demeanor—the trio saw some ensemble woes uncharacteristic of both this maestro and these musicians. The rapturous Adagio, despite both tenderness and sparkle in the orchestra’s tone, had the same ambling quality as the Schoenberg, taking on the character of a lullaby.

The finale began with slightly more chaos than is written into the score, nearly unraveling in the initial salvo of brass, but eventually giving way to a gorgeous molasses tone from the cellos, a demonstration of the sort of soulful playing this great orchestra can achieve. The coda, of course, had its tremendous blustering and thrilling crash-landing, but other than the brilliant, bursting energy of the chorus, this finale suffered from the same restraint as the rest of the symphony.

An uneven vocal quartet, drawn from the robust ranks of the Wiener Staatsoper, did not help. The bass Günther Groissböck jumped into his opening solo with abandon, bringing a rough-around-the-edges tone that had immense body except at its bottom. His tenor counterpart Peter Seiffert showed glimpses of smooth, milky tone, but also a great deal of effort, while the soprano Ricarda Merbeth sounded harsh cutting through her part. Though not showcased by any stretch, the mezzo-soprano Zoryana Kushpler stood out in the ensemble work with her earthy, rich chest voice, sounding almost like a contralto.

Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic continue their Carnegie Hall residency on Wednesday with a concert including Mozart’s Symphony no. 28, Johannes Maria Staud’s On Comparative Meteorology and Bruckner’s Symphony no. 6.

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