Austria Webern, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Mahler – Vienna Skandalkonzert: Christiana Oelze (soprano), Iris Vermillion (mezzo), ÖRF Symphonieorchester Wien, Cornelius Meister (conductor), Musikverein, Vienna, 5.4.2013. (SRT)
Webern: Six pieces for orchestra, op.6
Zemlinsky: Four Maeterlinck songs, op.13
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No.1
Berg: Two Altenberg songs
The Vienna Musikverein opened its doors in 1870, but its most infamous evening took place almost exactly a century ago, and this evening’s concert commemorated it. The famous Skandalkonzert of 31 March 1913 featured the same programme as above, and was organised by Schönberg himself. However, the advanced dissonance of some of the fare on offer pushed the audience to breaking point. A riot broke out, blows were exchanged, an ambulance had to be sent for and the concert never made it to the end of the programme.
Now that perspectives have lengthened, it’s sometimes difficult to put yourself in the position of that original audience, especially when we compare some of this music to what came later. Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony, for example, isn’t nearly as challenging as some of his other work – it has identifiable tunes and cadences, for one thing – and tonight it was made all the more accessible by a reading from the ÖRF Sinfonieorchester Wien that was positively sumptuous in places. It helped they were playing the version for full orchestra, which gave the strings plenty of leeway for rich, full-bodied sound with glorious full orchestral climaxes. Meister shaped the work with grand gestures that helped shape it into a vast arc of sound, and the glorious Musikverein acoustics brought out its full resonance perfectly.
If Schoenberg now seems more accessible, the intervening century has done nothing to reduce the shock of the new in the music of Anton Webern. His Six Pieces still sound staggeringly modern. He uses the instruments of the orchestra sparingly, like diamonds twinkling on a dark background, but the sheer sparseness of the writing is still perplexing to many 21st century ears. The central climax of the work, where an eerily disembodied percussion sound leads into an ear-splitting orchestral thunderbolt, still has the ability to stun. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that this music dates from 1913: it sounded in places like a desolate response to the Second World War, or something that could have come out of Darmstadt in the 1950s.
Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, according to some the real source of the controversy in 1913, are much less extended than Webern’s Pieces, but in their own way they too have lost none of their strangeness and distance that must have so alienated their first audiences. Christiane Oelze managed to turn her voice into something ghostly and sinister, as disjointed as the music, to remind us how daring they are. Her Zemlinsky songs were much less abrasive and much more sensual, but then Zemlinsky himself always kept a clear distance between himself and Schoenberg’s circle, hanging onto basic tonality, albeit distended beyond what most of his contemporaries would have recognised, and therefore the beautiful texture of his writing is always closer to the surface.
Iris Vermillion stepped in for Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and the darker quality of her voice suited these songs extremely well. The mother’s denial seemed all the more poignant when imbued with such passion, and the first four songs passed with tender feeling. All was building to a blistering rendition of the final song, however. Meister stirred the orchestra up into a whiplash evocation of the foul weather while Vermilion seemed to identify palpably with the anguish of the poet’s words. Then the final verse broke with a longed-for sense of blessing and renunciation: orchestra, conductor and singer were at one in their evocation of the children’s ultimate bliss in their final resting place, and together they evoked in the audience a similar sense of journey’s end that made the music shimmer and glow in its final bars. In the context of this programme Mahler’s music does still sound daring and innovative, especially in his use of harmonies, but if the audience of 1913 had let the concert get that far then they would have found it an enormously satisfying end to Schoenberg’s programme. Meister and his orchestra achieved the difficult feat of finding beauty in the midst of dissonance and playing with virtuosic intensity, reminding us that while tastes may change, some things will always sound modern.