Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst in New York – Schubert, Widmann & Richard Strauss

Symphony No.6 in C, D589
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 2 March, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Franz Welser-Möst. Photograph: Harald SchneiderEvery time the Vienna Philharmonic appears one hopes to see a greater number of female musicians. However, even now, there were only three (an oboist, a violinist, and a cellist) performing alongside the men of this august institution. All other major orchestras have no problem in finding qualified women. The VPO prides itself on its traditional sound, but this is less a function of gender than of a style of playing, passed on by existing members to their students, and the use of unique instruments – different models of oboes and horns, and closely matched string instruments. For the Schubert the number of musicians was reduced to about 55, but even at that size the impression was of listening to a closely-knit chamber orchestra. The winds were balanced and blended, and perfectly integrated. This was an ‘old-fashioned’ performance – first and second violins massed together and with the first-movement exposition repeat omitted. It made for a short (25-minute) first half, and intrusively the first three movements were applauded. Franz Welser-Möst’s tempos were moderate, which made for a rather lengthy finale. While one could admire the beauty of the string tone, what was lacking was any kind of excitement or sparkle. Carnegie Hall had billed this symphony as one of two “comic masterpieces” bookending the concert. Hyperbole aside, there was very little humor or lightness to be found. It was beautifully and smoothly played, but lackluster, and with little leadership emanating from the podium.

Till Eulenspiegel similarly suffered from a lack of interpretative detail; it was a generalized, rather than an incisively etched performance. Richard Strauss was a master of orchestration, and some moments will always make an impact. But there was no wit, very little characterization of the prankster’s scabrous exploits; and no depth of sound or gravitas when Till is led to the gallows. The first and third horn players acquitted themselves admirably, and the D-clarinetist deserves mention for his colorful playing.

The centerpiece was the 25-minute Lied by Jörg Widmann (born 1973), completed in 2003 and revised in 2009, and meant to “represent a return to song, an element particularly neglected in contemporary music.” Lied drew amply on the strengths of the VPO – beautiful, evocative pianissimos from the strings, sylvan horn calls – and Welser-Möst (who has previously conducted Lied in Cleveland) was ideally suited to sustain the placid atmosphere of this slowly unfolding music, which has been likened to “Schubert being overheard in a dream.” Although Widmann alludes to Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, and his String Quintet and Octet, one is not aware of direct quotes, but rather is immersed into an atmosphere of tonal beauty interspersed by modernistic touches – sudden drum strokes, single sustained pitches on the accordion, suspended harmonics, and even an extended contrabassoon solo. For all the suggestion of the soundworlds of Mahler and Richard Strauss’s, and two build-ups of massed sound, Lied leaves an overall impression of being removed from the world and of nostalgia for another era. No concert by the Vienna Philharmonic can end without bringing us a glimpse of that time – here Johann Strauss II’s Kuß-Walzer, his Opus 400, sealing the evening with a kiss.

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