Verklärte Nacht, Op.4
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 3 March, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
The Vienna Philharmonic began its three-concert Carnegie Hall residency in spectacular fashion with a superbly performed program of two sumptuous tone poems, opening with Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Arnold Schoenberg’s twilight-of-Romanticism work depicting two lovers on an evening walk through a moonlit forest, where the woman, full of anxiety and remorse, confesses that she is pregnant by a previous lover, and the man unexpectedly responds that their love will unite them and that he will treat the child as his own.
Responding to Christian Thielemann’s full-bodied conducting with both ardor and thrust, the Vienna players delivered a passionate rendering of the string-orchestra version (the original is for sextet), their elegant and exuberant playing revealing all the warmth of the Richard Dehmel poem which inspired it. The opening was ravishing, but the soul of the poignant performance lay in concertmaster Rainer Honeck’s solo contributions, alternating between anxiety and serenity, but always exquisitely polished.
An opulent account of Eine Alpensinfonie, Richard Strauss’s spectacularly evocative showpiece, for a extravagant orchestra – 125 musicians, including offstage horns, organ, celesta, and some rarely used instruments such as a heckelphone – depicts a dramatic daylong Alpine trek, the last of the composer’s works in the tone poem genre. Because of the oversized orchestra and restlessly episodic structure the piece can come across as bloated and bombastic, but not on this occasion. Thielemann infused the score with focused radiance, highlighting the numerous pictorial details and molding each phrase with wonderful vitality and feeling. The Vienna players were at their finest, offering rich, cultured, and vital playing throughout – the echoing horns appropriately noble on ‘The Ascent’, the glowing violins soaring at the ‘Entry into the Forest’, the percussion glittering in ‘At the Waterfall’, the oboe solo extremely touching in ‘At the Summit’, the whole ensemble tremendously impressive in ‘Thunderstorm and Tempest, Descent’, and the trombones and tuba solemnly majestic in the opening and closing ‘Night’ sections.
Some overly eager audience members prematurely started applauding during the piece’s pianissimo closing but came to a quick halt when Thielemann, arms still slightly raised, remained motionless. He returned to the stage only once and led a lighthearted encore: a graceful rendition of Joseph Hellmesberger Junior’s Entr’acte Valse.