Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Begins Extended Stay at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Schoenberg, Beethoven: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (chorus director), Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, (25.2.2013) (SSM)

Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden for Chorus and Instruments ad lib, Op 13
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 125

Ricarda Merbeth (soprano)
Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Seiffert (tenor)
Günther Groissböck (bass)

This was the opening concert of the “Vienna: City of Dreams” festival at Carnegie Hall, and what better way to begin than with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, played by an orchestra intimately connected with the composer. The festival, which focuses on the musical legacy of Vienna, includes seven programs by the Vienna Philharmonic, concert versions of Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Salome, the complete Beethoven violin sonatas performed by Leonidas Kavakos, Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin with Mattias Goerne and Christopher Eschenbach and more. There will also be special events, lectures and films.

The program began with Schoenberg’s brief Freide auf Erden which has some affinities  ̶   and some antipathies  ̶̶  vis-à-vis Beethoven’s Ninth. The texts of both works proclaim a victory for peace and love, but Beethoven later in life believed that brotherhood and love for one another were possible, while Schoenberg ultimately rejected his earlier optimism. Twenty or so years after Schoenberg wrote this piece he stated, “When I composed it…this pure harmony among human beings was conceivable.” Both of these works make impossible demands on the chorus, but Joseph Flummerfelt and the New York Choral Artists handled the challenges admirably. Their performance of Friede auf Erden was carefully balanced and avoided the possibility of going over the top into screeching. The work jumps between tonality and atonality but concludes with a tonal cadence; it was to be Schoenberg’s last tonal work.

Perhaps it was my anticipation that led to a sense of disappointment in the performance of the Ninth. As one might expect from the Vienna Philharmonic, it was a traditional reading. Tempi and dynamics were conservative, but even if old-fashioned, a performance doesn’t have to be wan and lacking in electricity. One thinks of  Toscanini who still had a foot in the nineteenth century but drew from the players in his orchestra a fire that at this concert was started too late.

The last movement brought an awakening of both conductor and orchestra. In fact, my complaint here is that the fire spread too quickly and the final chorus verged on being out of control. This over-intensity felt pushed rather than evolving naturally from the previous movements. Except for  mezzo Zoryana Kuspler who had a weaker voice, the soloists seemed to be singing for another conductor and orchestra and were overheated. This is not to say that powerful singing is inappropriate for the Ninth Symphony, but coming after the pale performance up to this point, it felt like the vocalists were singing Wagner rather than Beethoven.

Stan Metzger