Vienna Philharmonic in New York – 2 [Smetana Má vlast/Nikolaus Harnoncourt]

Má vlast [Vyšehrad; Vltava; Šárka; Z českých luh û a hájú (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields); Tábor; Blaník]

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 30 September, 2010
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Photograph: Marco Borggreve for Sony BMG Music EntertainmentAlthough ‘Vltava’, the second movement of Smetana’s Má vlast (My Country), is one of the most popular pieces of music, one hardly ever hears the whole cycle. Since there were empty seats in the hall, it seems that one famous section did not tempt everyone to get to know the work as a whole, even with the Vienna Philharmonic performing it. And as it turned out, ‘Vltava’ received an uninspired and lackluster performance in a generally disappointing first part of the concert.

Instead of starting with a trickle, this river Moldau sprang from the earth as a creek at least. Rather than growing from a slight murmur in the flutes, non agitato, the playing was too loud and too energetic at the beginning to leave much room for developing into the broad and familiar string melody. The hunting scene was a pallid affair in the distance, while the Peasant Wedding was mannered and stylized. The moonlight episode was as much lacking in mystery as the section depicting the rapids was without any kind of drama, and the concluding full flow of the river increased neither in tempo nor intensity, nor majesty, when the main theme of ‘Vyšehrad’ should have been stated triumphantly.

The opening cadenza of that first movement had featured antiphonal harps, which created an effect of sorts, but doesn’t really seem musically mandated (as opposed to the antiphonal violins). The woodwind-players didn’t particularly distinguish themselves in matters of intonation and ensemble, while the leader (Rainer Honeck) did his best to keep the strings together at least. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not a conductor who draws a luscious sound from an orchestra, as he tends to give beats and bars rather than phrases; this robbed especially this opening movement of its expansiveness and grandeur. His approach should have worked better in ‘Šárka’, which relies more on short bursts than long lines. However, although the musicians dug in valiantly, the sound never acquired any real depth and the music didn’t quite reach the level of excitement and fury required; the clarinet solo was painfully sharp.

Things somehow improved after the interval, the string section playing with a warmer, richer and more idiomatic sound than before. When it came to the fugal section in ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ though, these players’ intonation did not quite live up to the standard one expects from this orchestra. The percussion-playing likewise was far from world-class. Smetana uses the triangle extensively, but here it was a crude instrument without any shimmering overtones, and one-size-fits-all cymbals were used in any context.

The best playing of the evening was reserved for the last two movements, ‘Tábor’ and ‘Blanik’, although even then one could wish for more incisiveness and definition. Harnoncourt finally got fully involved in proceedings, so much so that he managed to knock his score off the stand. Since he was not using a baton or standing on a podium, he was able to quickly retrieve the copy before the leader could put down his instrument to get it for him. Never dropping a beat and flipping pages, he soon found his place and soldiered on – as did Michael Tilson Thomas when he flung his baton into the audience at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, and Klaus Tennstedt in Japan, when his music-stand kept descending. There is a first for everything!

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