Hackneyed Pairing Interrupted by Meteorological Delight

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Staud, Bruckner: Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 26.2.14 (DA)

Mozart: Symphony No. 28 in C Major, K200
Staud: On Comparative Meteorology (rev. ed. 2010)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 in A Major


If there’s one thing you can rely on from the Vienna Philharmonic, it’s that they won’t mess with Mozart. After a complacent and at times embarrassingly played first concert in this ‘Vienna: City of Dreams’ festival, it was a relief to see the fullest of full complements of strings on stage for one of Mozart’s earlier symphonies. And if the Philharmonic’s characteristic sound had dragged Schoenberg and Beethoven down, here it would be more welcome. Gorgeous long lines ensued in the fluttery slow movement, woodwinds were beautifully mellow, and there was a general busyness to the tone that came close to glee.

 That sound, however, also had to reckon with Franz Welser-Möst. The hard-driven, incessant quality that had marred Beethoven’s Ninth on the previous night somehow carried over to this Mozart. The first movement was extraordinarily harried, with little of the charm at the speed that, say, Claudio Abbado found in this work in his similarly brisk recording with the Berlin Philharmonic—so too with the minuet, although its trio was delightful. And while the second violins attempted manfully (I use the word advisedly) to keep up in the all-too-spirited finale, there was barely time for the notes to emerge, let alone the requisite grace.

 Welser-Möst claims much greater affinity with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, although in the name of quirky programming he has made some weird claims about how his typical repetitions (nothing, in reality, of the sort), look forward to the minimalism of Philip Glass and John Adams. The conductor can be quite a stark, grey Brucknerian, pleasantly clear in timbre, but not modernist in any radical way (think Michael Gielen), nor transcendent with religious impulse (Sergiu Celibidache’s recording remains the guide). Still, there was a sense of lucid planning to this Sixth, which was welcome in this least convincing of Bruckner’s later symphonies. The first movement was rather tame, the orchestra still apparently warming up and counterpoint – not to mention textures generally – thus emerging fuzzily. And then, suddenly, an orchestra on shattering form for the great Adagio, immediately and consistently possessed of a tone so deep it seemed to emerge from miles beneath the stage, in a roar that was poignant and yet a roar all the same. Sure, the brass were messy at times, but now the commitment was such that it didn’t really matter. For the scherzo too, internal parts chattered, the horns flattered the music, and monochrome periodically resolved into a polished mahogany. The finale felt much more developmental, more vital, than the Beethoven Ninth had (how this is possible, I have no idea). If textures got away from Welser-Möst a few times too often, at least there was an architecture to it.

 Mozart and Bruckner – a hackneyed pairing on the concert stage now – were split by a wonderful work from Johannes Maria Staud, a composer from whom, like so many of his Central European confrères, we do not hear enough on the major stages of New York. On Comparative Meteorology is around twenty minutes long, and takes its cues from the short stories of Bruno Schulz. Originally composed for Welser-Möst’s Cleveland Orchestra (and dedicated to him), it requires massive forces, and a particularly versatile percussion section. The themes are allusive – zoos, botany, forests, the weather – but also developed with verve in a cohesive, transforming arc, alternating between quiet, rustling music and much more adamant, angrier sections. Staud clearly has his own voice, however much it owes to Berg and Ligeti, with a great talent for creating sounds that you can’t quite place as belonging to a particular instrument. And although I would need to see a score, and I imagine Welser-Möst’s Ohio band would be a mite more precise, on a first hearing the Philharmonic played it pretty well, with a notable energy.

 David Allen