Vienna Philharmonic explores seeds of Weimar with Bruckner and Berg

Sat Mar 02, 2024 at 2:18 pm
Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the first of three weekend programs Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

Franz Welser-Möst has returned to Carnegie Hall for the second time this year for three concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. The first of which featured Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 and Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra Friday evening.

As with his earlier appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra, these concerts are part of Carnegie’s “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice” project. The series explores through music the events leading up to and precipitating the fall of the Weimar Republic, as the German government was known from the end of World War I until the rise of the Nazis in 1933. 

Neither Bruckner’s final symphony nor Berg’s three-movement suite for orchestra date from that era. They do, however, help to illuminate the hotbed of creativity in the arts, from music to architecture, which was Vienna on the threshold of the twentieth century. They also brilliantly capture a culture in its final burst of glory before it was all but decimated by war in the ensuing decades. 

Bruckner began work on the Ninth Symphony in 1887 immediately after completing his Eighth Symphony. He had come to the symphonic form late, having won renown for his organ music and choral music, especially his three monumental masses from the 1860s. After the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in 1868, he would compose little else outside the genre.

The Ninth Symphony remained unfinished when Bruckner died in 1896. He had completed only three movements, but worked assiduously on the finale, of which 200 pages of sketches survive. Several composers have fleshed out a fourth movement, but it is usually performed in its unfinished state, as it was here.

In the Bruckner, Welser-Möst led a performance of the work that demonstrated his total command of the score with the sweep and breadth of his approach, as well as its incredible amount of musical detail. The first movement (Feierlich, misterioso) began with sound that evolved from nothingness into waves of flowing lyrical melodies, with each variation having ever more intriguing depths of beauty and emotion.

Woodwind solos added mystery to the musical texture, while the resounding brass chorales imparted majesty to it. A spectacular kaleidoscope of orchestra colors gave way to terrifying blasts from the brass. When the tension was all but unbearable, it dissipated in the movement’s final measure.

In the Scherzo, the strings were exceptional for the precise pizzicati as well as the verve and intensity of their playing of the dance-like melodies which course through the movement. Horrifying best describes the sounds which came from the woodwinds, but the great stabs of sound which punctuate the movement evoked cataclysm. 

In the Adagio, the sound of the violins was transformed into playing of great warmth, enhanced by the rich sound of the brass. With the entrance of the four Wagner tubas, the orchestra’s sound was transcendent. The melodies which bloomed soft and lovely afterwards, were cut short by the driving pizzicati of the violas and cellos. 

The movement reached its emotional climax in the famous massive chord which combines all the pitches of the diatonic scale sounded at the same time. The resultant sound was ugly, harsh, and grotesque, but yielded to an ending which was both serene and reached towards eternity.

Only after the final notes of the symphony sounded, did Welser-Möst’s intentions in pairing the Bruckner and Berg become clear. The conductor did not turn to acknowledge the applause, but rather stood still facing the orchestra. The Berg would serve, if not as a substitute for the unfinished fourth movement, as a coda which jettisoned the audience into the future. Which for music was the Second Viennese School, of which Welser-Möst asserts that Berg was perhaps its greatest genius. 

Berg began work on the Three Pieces for Orchestra in 1913 in response to Schoenberg’s particularly stinging criticism of his Altenberg Lieder and the Four Pieces for solo clarinet. The younger composer took his mentor’s words to heart and eventually chose to work in one of Schoenberg’s preferred forms, a suite for orchestra. Berg dedicated the work to his teacher and presented it to him as a birthday gift on September 13, 1914, by which time war raged in Europe. 

A performance of Berg’s Three Pieces lasts approximately 20 minutes. In that brief span of time, Berg condensed and intensified all of the emotions which course through the Bruckner Ninth. If Berg’s music is more terrifying, it reflects the time in which he lived, rather than Bruckner’s unswerving belief in God. 

The work began with Welser-Möst drawing barely audible, mysterious sounds from the flute, trumpet, and then celeste in the opening measures of the Praeludium. Primeval sounds followed from growlings from the lower brass to earsplitting stabs of sound of incredible complexity, which ultimately fade again into nothingness. 

Welser-Möst drew eerie, transparent sound from the orchestra in the second piece ,which Berg entitled “Reigen.” The dance-like music which emerged, often described as “demented,” would later serve as the starting point of the Inn Scene in Wozzeck. For all of its strangeness, conductor and orchestra played the strains of waltzes and Ländler with a lightness that only added to the sense of disorientation. 

In the concluding Marsch, Welser-Möst unleashed the full fury of the orchestra. The emotional intensity of the playing climaxed in terrifying strokes of sound which resounded throughout the hall. As the sound of glockenspiel, celesta, and harp faded in the final measures, one sensed only despair, not the hopes of salvation with which the Bruckner had ended. 

The marquees for the March 2 and 3 concerts were plastered with sold-out banners after the concert. The second concert is devoted to music composed during the Weimar Era and will be followed by Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on Sunday. 

“The Fall of the Weimar Republic” festival continues with a recital by baritone Justin Austin and pianist Howard Watkins on March 5.

3 Responses to “Vienna Philharmonic explores seeds of Weimar with Bruckner and Berg”

  1. Posted Mar 02, 2024 at 2:39 pm by Rebes

    Thank you for a review that truly captures the intensity and precision of the performance. It was an amazing concert, and I am glad to have experienced it.

  2. Posted Mar 02, 2024 at 4:01 pm by Akira

    It was very unfortunate that Berg’s Three Pieces were performed immediately after Bruckner’s superb symphony. Even if somebody has a specific intension and message in this arrangement, this destroyed the value of Bruckner 9 almost completely. Given the performance was reasonably nice, the overall impression of this concert was severely dampened by this arrangement.

  3. Posted Mar 02, 2024 at 4:13 pm by John Kelly

    This was certainly provocative programming. I was reminded of Oscar the Grouch’s meals where he would eat two things that don’t go together… all. Here we were served chicken vindaloo after our Boef Bourginon. The playing was tremendous as usual from this orchestra and FWM did a good job with tempi moving the Bruckner along. I didn’t find any of the sounds “horrifying” in the Bruckner though we got a good look at hell before the final assurance that in the end all will be well.

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