Austria Schreker, Mahler, Berg, and Pfitzner: Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ingo Metzmacher (conductor). Großer Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, 7.12.2012 (MB)
Schreker: Vorspiel zu einem Drama
Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Pfitzner: Palestrina: Three Preludes
I struggle to recall the last time I heard a piece by Franz Schreker in a concert programme. It is a great pity, since, whilst he might not be a ‘great’ composer, he is often a very good one, and certainly superior to many composers who occupy concert, still more opera, programmes. This performance of his Vorspiel zu einem Drama, an expansion of the opening Prelude to Die Gezeichneten, opened with what one might consider a classic Schreker sound from the ORF SO under Ingo Metzmacher: lush yet variegated, with a finely-judged phantasmagorical quality. Not that it lacked direction; indeed, the onward tread, especially later on, of its progress was a particular quality of this reading. Unsurprisingly Metmzacher sometimes emphasised the more overtly modernistic qualities of Schreker’s writing, for instance for tuned percussion, but never didactically. Performance and work veered between post-Gurrelieder, post-Tristan, post-Salome writing, with a proper sense of nausea at the end. Having walked to the gilded Musikverein from the Belvedere, where I had seen a good number of works by Gustav Klimt, this seemed, as it was, properly golden late-late-Romanticism. If Metzmacher did not wallow unduly, the music remained something of a guilty pleasure.
Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder followed, albeit in unusual order. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ offered an immediately sparer sound: contrast with, perhaps even respite from, what had preceded. Petra Lang’s voice was not always ideally focused, although matters improved somewhat during the following ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’. Her delivery, however, continued to tend towards the operatic; one had to listen to the orchestra for a more detailed response. Turbulence aplenty came from that quarter in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ Nastiness and fear – is this child’s play, or something more, and in any case is not child’s play something fearful? – pervaded Mahler’s orchestral writing, Lang’s performance more animated too. She certainly delivered gravity, a Nietzschean ‘deepness’, in the opening of ‘Um Mitternacht’, though later on she became more operatic again. There was, however, a finely etched orchestral performance, the woodwind echoes of the Nietzsche movement of the Third Symphony especially apparent. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ brought Lang’s finest performance, unfortunately disrupted by a mobile telephone. Blowsiness was banished; lines were clearer. I still, however, could only make out about half of the words; that I knew them already should neither have been here nor there.
Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces received a mixed performance. There was much to admire, for instance the truly inchoate opening, out of which germinated all manner of things Mahlerian and post-Mahlerian, though the harmonies could only ever have been Berg’s. Metzmacher’s was not a chilly performance, not even a Boulez-like performance; Romantic contrasts were more his thing than clarity. Sometimes that was problematical, when balances proved less than ideal. However, as time went one, communication of the hierarchy of voices – an extraordinarily difficult task to accomplish in performance – improved, the odd occluded and/or tentative entry notwithstanding. When waltz and march rhythms really got into their stride, the musical narrative was compelling indeed – and there was something undeniably moving to hearing this music in the Musikverein. A stray trumpet note after the final chord was a pity, but did not obliterate memories of the twentieth-century terror we had previously experienced.
Berg metamorphosed without a break into Pfitzner. The idea was to present two different past visions of musical futures. Of course, though, we knew whose vision won out, and in this case juxtaposition served principally to underline the justice of the musico-historical verdict. Pfitzner’s unpleasant nationalism aside, his æsthetics led nowhere, and even in the Preludes from what many consider his finest work, Palestrina, the invention sounded a little threadbare in response to the Bergian labyrinth. Metzmacher and the ORF SO certainly did what they could to level the score, their performances more consistent than they had been in Berg; whether this were the case or no, Pfitzner sounded more thoroughly rehearsed. The first prelude was dignified and direct, rhythms taut. Though great contrast was afforded by the performance of the second, I could not help but think that a less hard-driven account might have been to its benefit. Debts to Parsifal are so obvious in the third prelude, less productively (Debussy, Mahler) than just watered-down, that there is not much to be done other than to perform the music with as much conviction as one can muster. Metzmacher certainly did that. However, as I said, we knew only too well whose vision of the future won out, and were grateful for it.