Vienna Philharmonic/Maazel at Carnegie Hall – Three Sibelius Symphonies

Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 2 March, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliA month ago I attended an outstanding concert at Salle Pleyel with Orchestre de Paris and Lorin Maazel (in a program of Ravel and Dukas). Now in Carnegie Hall Maazel led the Vienna Philharmonic (in the first of three concerts, of Mozart and Wagner, and of Richard Strauss and the unrelated Strauss Family) in symphonies by Jean Sibelius. I had been impressed by Maazel’s individual, extroverted approach to these works during his tenure at the Pittsburgh Symphony, so this looked to be a potentially provocative combination of composer, conductor, and orchestra.

The Seventh Symphony started impressively enough, with cellos and double basses incisive on their initial entrance, but serious issues became apparent. Balances favored the strings and horns, but left winds and brass oddly overpowered, which plagued the performance. There was rather imprecise ensemble in the opening third of this single-movement symphony, particularly in the violins. Maazel’s tempos were consistently slow, and the outer sections were heavy on rubato and ritenuto, but vague on rhythmic intensity. There was a bit more clarity in the faster central section, even given the unusually measured tempo, yet a surprising lack of character and direction to the music. I’ve never heard the coda delivered with so little tension.

Things did not get much better in the Fifth Symphony, the opening movement far messier in execution than anything I’ve heard the Vienna Philharmonic deliver during a concert. The rhythmic accompaniment of the strings in the second theme didn’t take sail and the strophic repeated theme in the winds and brass came off as terse. The second movement, though, had abundant character – the usual wistfulness, but also pungent interjections and persistent dissonances. Sadly, the finale returned to the disappointing form of the first, making little impression, including the closing chords, which were utterly flaccid.

For the most part the First Symphony is Sibelius’s mature style, but some phrases and motifs in the opening movement have more than a hint of Brucknerian sonority and are more in-keeping with the Vienna Philharmonic’s sympathies. For the most part the score was conveyed with character, but not quite the extrovert forcefulness that is often required. Likewise, the opening of the fourth movement lacked ominous vehemence.

This isn’t the first time for odd balances when an orchestra has opted to use risers on Stern Auditorium’s stage. Indeed, one could see the concertmaster and principal cellist often watching one another. And Maazel’s clear stick-technique didn’t seem as rock-solid as usual.

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