Vienna Philharmonic thrills with music from Weimar era (more or less)

Sun Mar 03, 2024 at 1:19 pm
Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall this concert season, “The Fall of the Weimar Republic” has been a handy rubric for presenting European music of the end-of-Romanticism, start-of-Modernism kind.

In real life, the fall of the Weimar Republic was a dismal affair in which a fledgling German democracy was undermined by hyperinflation, by dashed hopes of improved relations with recent enemies Great Britain and France, and finally by a charismatic Führer with something other than democracy on his mind.

The first and last of the Vienna Philharmonic’s three concerts at Carnegie Hall this weekend, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst under the “Fall of…” banner, are featuring works by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), composers who predate that ill-fated government by twenty-three and eight years, respectively.

Only the series’s middle child, Saturday’s well-played concert of music by Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and Ravel, seemed actually aimed at the time between the wars, and even that aim was a little shaky. Of the four, only Paul Hindemith was a German under the Weimar regime when he composed the Konzertmusik für Blasorchester, Op. 41, in 1926.

Although Strauss was still administering “the shock of the new” as the 20th century began, he was considered old news by the time he completed his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1917, and older still in 1946, when he gathered the “best parts” of Die Frau in a Symphonic Fantasy.

Schoenberg was a fan of cabaret, that symbol of Weimar-era license—but he was hunting other game in 1928, when he completed the revolutionary, neo-Baroque Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, his first orchestral work in a rigorous 12-tone idiom.

Ravel’s glorious and cataclysmic “choreographic poem” La valse,completed in 1920, was certainly about the fall of something, but that something was a grand empire, not a struggling democracy.

But if these works corresponded to Weimar more in date than in spirit, Welser-Möst’s and the Vienna players’ performances of them were, at their best, completely thrilling.

Hindemith’s Konzertmusik did indeed address the democratic ethos of the time, as the composer turned from his esoteric expressionist works to what he called Gebrauchsmusik—freely translated, “music you can use.”  In the spirit of Haydn’s Feldparthien, Hindemith’s wind orchestra was modeled on German military bands.

Some listeners find an element of cabaret-style satire in this Konzertmusik, especially the pompous march that concludes it. In any case, only the most skilled players could have navigated its harmonic and contrapuntal twists. The Vienna musicians did so with ease, rising to the challenge of getting two dozen woodwind and brass instruments to speak together in the overture, vividly characterizing the variations movement from a funeral march to a perky fugue, and tossing around the closing march’s chesty theme.

Speaking of challenges, Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most difficult operas to produce, with its four-hour duration, 164-piece orchestra, magical stage effects, and vocally punishing roles. To give its luminous music wider circulation, the 82-year-old composer crafted a 21-minute Symphonic Fantasy on the opera’s themes, with reduced orchestration but its Straussian flair intact.

In Saturday’s performance, the sensuous sound of the Vienna strings, from enveloping double basses to soaring violins, was complemented by the golden resonance of the brass in transparent yet bonded textures. Countermelodies frolicked under a hymn-like trombone solo, symphonic stand-ins for the mythological opera’s human protagonists, a dyer and his wife.

The composer’s artful stitching of many scenes into a single piece was matched by Welser-Möst’s flowing performance, which rode wave after wave of Straussian crescendo to a broad climax and diminuendo coda.

The intermission gave listeners time to come down from their Strauss high and get very, very serious, because Schoenberg was next. The stern visage of the emperor of the Second Vienna School, and the dodecaphonic rigor of his composing method, seemed to cast a pall over Saturday’s rendering of the Variations, as skillful and well-shaped as it was.

With the piece’s soulful theme, nine diverse variations and polyphonic finale, Schoenberg claimed to continue the tradition of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and also showed that 12-tone music could flirt, swing and sway, and crack a joke with the best of them. For all its precision and expert mixing of orchestral colors, Saturday’s performance was a little short on fun.

Likewise La valse, a French composer’s evocation of old Vienna and its downfall, could have used a bit more of both esprit and Schlag. It goes without saying that this crack ensemble gave a spectacular performance of Ravel’s whirling, tumultuous showpiece. But this of all orchestras was also capable of bringing the perfume of that other Strauss, Johann Jr., and apparently the businesslike conductor never asked them for it.

The rubatos and the waltz lilt were duly observed, and the delicious harp arpeggios blossomed on time, but Welser-Möst’s steady progress through the score had little time for the lingering glance or the press of a gloved hand. Concertmaster Volkhard Steude’s violin solo, sweet as it was, smelled more of the concert hall than the café.

That said, the shattering conclusion of La valse certainly raised the roof. It’s unlikely the demise of a misbegotten, short-lived republic would inspire music like that.

The Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, 2 p.m. Sunday in Carnegie Hall.

One Response to “Vienna Philharmonic thrills with music from Weimar era (more or less)”

  1. Posted Mar 03, 2024 at 3:56 pm by Stephen Essrig

    The Hindemith, from a composer who I usually admire, and sometimes love, seemed not very interesting or compositionally rigorous, and with the bombast of the ensemble, which Welser-Most should have tamed, was off-putting. The Strauss was very disappointing, but not because of the orchestra or the conducting: simply that the work itself makes little sense. It’s pretty obvious that, by 1946, Strauss was past it, so to speak.

    Perhaps it’s me, but I found the Schoenberg, one of the most intellectual and musically challenging works in the entire classical canon, to be absolutely the best part of the concert. The performance was stupendous, and while it may not have been “playful” I’m not sure that adjective is appropriate in term’s of what Schoenberg was aiming for.
    Ending with the Ravel, one was struck most by the incredible virtuousity of the orchestra, as these latter two pieces are so diametrically opposite in their compositional intent and sound world.

    Finally, with those quibbles aside, this was, for me and my wife, one of the most astounding concerts we’ve been to in years. Having had reservations-prior to this-about the reputation of the Vienna, and Welser-Most, I can say that my previous judgement has been completely reversed, at least for now.

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