Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 [1917 version]
Symphony No.9 in D minor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 27 February, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
For the second of their four Carnegie Hall concerts, Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic presented works created in Vienna within a few years of each other, by composers at very different stages in their lives and careers. Anton Bruckner wrote the three movements of his Ninth Symphony between 1887 and 1894, leaving the finale unfinished at this death (aged 72) in 1896, while Arnold Schoenberg was 25 when he composed Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in 1899, originally as a string sextet and arranged for string orchestra in 1917 (and again years later).
This one-movement work, predating Schoenberg’s development of the twelve-tone system of composition, is strongly influenced by Wagner yet linear in conception. This clarity of line is difficult to maintain in the orchestral version. Zubin Mehta only partially succeeded. The Vienna Philharmonic’s polished string sound must certainly create a temptation for any conductor to emphasize the lushness of this score at the expense of clarity. If this was Mehta’s objective, however, he made the curious choice of using a reduced string section, denying listeners the pleasure and impact of sound a full section would have produced at the climax. The solo parts were handled exquisitely, leader Rainer Küchl’s silvery tone perfectly evoking the atmosphere of the piece.
Bruckner’s symphony appropriately started with a mere whisper – the Vienna Philharmonic’s pianissimo has been described as “a 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce humming quietly”. Unfortunately it never returned to it; subsequent soft sections were merely quiet, never whispered or hushed, even at the beginning of the coda when this tone-quality is an essential prerequisite to the build-up which follows. This was but a symptom of what ailed this performance overall – lacking a sense of depth, of color, of structure, of going ‘beyond the notes’. Outer-movement climaxes were left hanging without any feeling of tension extending into succeeding rests. Alternating sections were without enough change in underlying color and atmosphere. The scherzo, marked Bewegt, lebhaft (moving, lively) was neither, but sluggish, plodding and pedantic. At least the trio was taken at the proper schnell (fast) tempo, showing off the virtuosity of the first-violin section. Beautifully executed as it was by the Vienna Philharmonic, on the whole this was a superficial reading by the conductor, lacking depth and insight