Vienna Phil at Carnegie (III): Busman’s Holiday for “Two B’s”

United StatesUnited States  Berg and Bruckner: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz WelserMöst (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 3.3.2013 (BH)Berg: Violin Concerto (1935)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, “Romantic” (1874-1888; ed. Korstvedt)

You know something special is afoot when the conductor of the New York Philharmonic is in the Carnegie Hall audience on one of his days off, and it was fun to watch Alan Gilbert (with his family) greeting myriad admirers just a few rows ahead of me. The idea of Gilbert bringing his kids to hear Berg and Bruckner gives me a chuckle, and I would love to have heard their comments after this final concert (of three) by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Franz WelserMöst

Berg’s Violin Concerto immediately showed that transparency was on the mind of the conductor, as well as the soloist, Frank Peter Zimmermann. The opening ascending fifths rose quietly and deliberately, and later, the violinist’s gentle molding of the phrases produced an atmosphere of seductive introspection. At times he leaned toward members of the orchestra to engage with them more closely; indeed, in the stormy second section, after the orchestra’s wind choir gave a perfectly shaped reading of the concerto’s Bach quotation, Zimmermann slowly stepped to the left, actually standing in the orchestra for a duet with the orchestra’s concertmaster.

Carefully harbored by WelserMöst, the ensemble was massive when needed, but more often gracefully ceded the spotlight to the violinist. As Zimmermann and his colleagues arrived at the heavenly, closing plateau, the conductor held his hands aloft, encouraging silence, but the moment was blurred by a smattering of applause (frustratingly, which also happened at the end of the Bruckner, and I heard similar reports on the previous two concerts). Quickly discouraging neighbors, the audience remained silent for a few more seconds before the maestro lowered his hands and the bravos began. After four ovations, Zimmermann acknowledged the praise with an encore, appropriately Bach: the Andante from his Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 103.

In 2010, at the Lincoln Center Festival, WelserMöst and the Cleveland Orchestra turned four nights of Bruckner and John Adams into an indelible week. Expectations were high that this Bruckner Fourth Symphony (in the 1888 edition by Benjamin Korstvedt) would be similarly revelatory, and the Vienna players’ galloping, tension-filled reading ultimately left me spellbound. The mysterious opening horn calls were well-gauged against the strings’ tremolos, heralding an hour of high points—the cellos in sensuous inner tissue, glistening flute solos, and noble offerings from the orchestra’s expert timpanist, placed closer to the forefront than usual. As in the Cleveland concerts, WelserMöst again exercised more transparency in calibrating the score’s massive machinery, while taking care to encourage a winsome oboe line to unfurl almost at its own pace. Again and again, anxious crescendos flowered into brass-laden climaxes—often only to be quickly silenced, or cinematically cross-cut with moments of repose. Perhaps my mind was too forgiving, ignoring a weak entrance here and there, but between the conductor’s pacing and the sheer beauty of tone flooding the hall, it was a Fourth to savor.

Bruce Hodges