Vienna Phil at Carnegie (I and II): A Tinge of Instability

 Suppé, R. Strauss, Dvořak, Schubert, Widmann: Herbert Lippert (tenor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 1.3.2013, 2.3.2013 (DA)

Suppé: Poet and Peasant Overture
R. Strauss: ‘Ich liebe dich’, Op.37/2; ‘Liebeshymnus’, Op.32/3; ‘Verführung’, Op.33/1; ‘Winterliebe’, Op.48/5
Dvořák: Symphony No.7 in D Minor, Op.70

Schubert: Symphony No.6 in C Major, D.589
Widmann: Lied
R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Few orchestras have as storied a history as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – good and bad. No other band so consciously revels in the past nor insulates itself so fully through it, at once relating and relying upon historic glories even as the present overtakes it.

These first two concerts of a three-day run at Carnegie Hall were echt Viennese affairs, by turns infuriating and ineffable in a way only this orchestra could manage. Under Franz Welser-Möst’s anonymous conducting, sloppiness vied with splendor, boredom with vigour, and dross with gleaming gold.

The first program opened with Franz von Suppé, a composer deservedly forgotten bar his Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry overtures. For the Viennese this was a chance, rare in this run, to engage in frolics more familiar from New Year’s Day. Smiles among the players and from the podium alike heralded a typically burnished sound, with an instantly recognizable roundness to the brass and a sweetness in the strings that (barely) stayed on the right side of saccharine.

The Suppé was pleasant enough, but the same sadly cannot be said of the pot-pourri of relatively obscure Richard Strauss songs that followed. Despite a longstanding relationship with the Philharmonic, tenor Herbert Lippert struggled, particularly with his intonation in ‘Ich liebe dich’ and ‘Liebeshymnus,’ and with his diction throughout. After the first two songs Welser-Möst and the Philharmonic took matters into their own hands, waking up after their previously listless efforts to find a Heldenleben-esque depth and shimmer for ‘Verführung.’ For their ‘Winterliebe’ they abandoned all pretense of restraint. ‘Freundliche Vision’, the first of Strauss’s Op.48 songs, proved an encore too far for Lippert.

How typical of this orchestra to be limp in Strauss one night yet luxurious the next. Strauss’s early tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche was delivered with a puckish glee and benefitted from the Philharmonic’s uniquely airy Strauss tone. Here, in twelve minutes, was absolutely everything one could hope for from this orchestra at their very best: underpinnings that seemed to levitate, grace married to vast reserves of power, tonal detail paired with color, and a narrative flow to die for (literally, in Till’s case).

Till followed the first Carnegie Hall performance of Jörg Widmann’s twenty-five minute Lied. One of today’s most interesting young composers and himself a dazzlingly accomplished clarinetist, Widmann has created something rather special with this revised version of a piece that consciously borrows from Schubert to find twenty-first century ways of asking an orchestra to sing. Lush lyricism is combined with starkly modernist interruptions and accompaniments in a span that perhaps owes too much to late Mahler (and particularly the outer movements of the completed Tenth). The Philharmonic might have brought more precision to this, and indeed Welser-Möst underplayed the more brutal elements of Widmann’s writing at the expense of melodic line, but together they shaped Lied’s arc gorgeously. This, like too many of Widmann’s works, is a piece to hear again and again.

Two symphonies formed the backbone of these programs, though, and neither was convincing. Schubert’s Rossini-infused Sixth came off best, with the Philharmonic providing the warmth characteristic to their performances of works of this period. Winds charmed in the slow introduction, even if they lacked focus en masse, and retained a honeyed tone throughout the symphony despite a slightly lackadaisical edge. Smudgy playing standards again intruded on a rendition otherwise full of life, while Welser-Möst gave with one hand and took away with the other. The slow movement captivated in places and shocked with its violence in others, before a surprisingly jocular scherzo surrounded an almost pulseless trio. Schubert’s other C Major symphony, the Ninth, threatened repeatedly to break through in the finale, and not just because of a tinge of instability that lingered under the surface. Amiable it certainly was, and technical prowess improved to an impressive high late on, but nothing united this performance into a satisfying whole.

Dvořák’s dark D minor symphony – Brahms with oomph – was unpredictably combustible in both the right and the wrong ways, excitable at times but devoid of structural shackles. The first movement was taken quickly, begun in medias res but with half-swallowed phrasing. Tuning was hardly adequate but this Dvořák was often thrilling, particularly in the development and coda. Off balances obscured the clarinet tune in the slow movement, while tempi seemed lumpy and the length of line all too short. There was some lovely playing, especially from Dieter Flury’s principal flute, but largely without overall direction. Welser-Möst was reluctant to let this music breathe as it must, although he imparted plenty of energy to the scherzo, only to be foiled by a spongy transition to the trio. Things looked up immediately for the finale, which began full of drive, but progress instead became unrelentingly hard-driven. Again electric music-making seemed almost intentionally, inevitably to follow playing so poorly coordinated that it sounded sight-read.

Preparing for the good and the bad, though, is the gamble you take with the Vienna Philharmonic. Whether you should have to is quite another matter.

David Allen