More Heterogeneous Programming from Cornelius Meister

AustriaAustria  Haydn, J. M. Staud, R. Strauss, Schoenberg: Cornelius Meister (conductor), Midori (soloist), Thomas Quasthoff (narrator), ORF RSO Wien, Men of the Wiener Singakademie. Großer Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna. 17.10.2014 (SS)


Haydn                                  Symphony No. 64 in A major Hob. I/64, ‘Tempora mutantur’
Johannes Maria Staud Oskar (Towards a Brighter Hue II)
Strauss                                 Metamorphosen
Schoenberg                         A Survivor from Warsaw, op. 46

With the Vienna Symphony apparently determined to be even more conservative than the Vienna Philharmonic (see what they’re issuing on their new label), programming like this is increasingly left to the ORF Radio Symphony, Vienna’s ‘third’ orchestra. The RSO touches base with the classical repertory still, but has a charter-mandated duty to contemporary music currently being fulfilled with eager interest by artistic director Cornelius Meister, who conducts many new works himself and has been trying of late to cast the net wider than Austria and Europe, bringing in David Robertson to do Steven Mackey’s mesmerizing violin concerto Beautiful Passing, among other things. In the space remaining to him, Meister has shown a flair for thematic accents, letting them fall either as one-offs or across successive seasons, as with his cycle of Martinů symphonies. For the moment, this concert’s second half is caught somewhere between the two (Meister conducted Il canto sospeso this time last year and an obvious continuation would be Il prigioniero, but I don’t recall any project being announced).

There was something in both the programming and performance of these two works which seemed to look beyond the recent tendency to add perspective to the Nazi era culpability of Strauss and moral ugliness to the worldview of Schoenberg. In Meister’s hands the two felt comfortably, naturally juxtaposed: no ‘helping’ Strauss by straining for sincerity, nor any sense of Schoenberg ‘correcting’ Metamorphosen. The Strauss might have done with something extra, though. There was ample roundness of body from the 23 strings, and transitions from section to section went very smoothly, like skin being shed, but lubricated segmentation is more of a starting point for this work than something to be presented as the finished product. Meister pitched the Schoenberg more assuredly, unafraid to make an impression but steering commendably clear of the hectoring didacticism which afflicts many a performance of Survivor (and the Ode to Napoleon). This was the best the orchestra sounded all night, too. Schoenberg insisted that the narrator refrain from any trace of sung tone, yet the rhythm of the part calls for a musician’s timing; Thomas Quasthoff is more than solid casting for the requirements and had an authoritative but unaffected way with the predominantly English text. The men of the Wiener Singakademie murmured Schoenberg’s quotation of the Shema Yisrael with the necessary dignity.

The first half of Haydn and Staud felt a little ordinary. Haydn scholar James Webster once wrote an essay with the title “Haydn’s Symphonies between Sturm und Drang and ‘Classical Style’”, and for no. 64 – particular the first movement – this holds as an applicable description. Meister deftly pivoted into and out of the minor-key stormy flashes, but despite playing not without a decent dose of invigorative power, crayon was somehow kept within the lines – and for a symphony as eventful and unusual as ‘Tempora mutantur’, a cover of amiable, innocuous Haydn doesn’t really cut it. A major feature of the work, and one way to interpret its title, is the slow movement’s lack of perfect cadences; here, Meister approached the ensuing discontinuities with stiltedness, as one might, but stiltedness which seemed a little too slick and cohesive. The popping up of the two horns to steal the melody from the strings had more of an unforced quality.

Johannes Maria Staud’s new violin concerto Oskar (Towards a Brighter Hue II) reuses material from Towards a Bright Hue, a work for solo violin from about ten years ago, and within this solo piece Staud plays with a rhythmic cell from his opera Berenice, so like many composers before him, he’s a good self-borrower. Oskar takes a while to get going, projecting stillness for a good half of its 20 minute duration and threatening to become one of those deliberately obscure Euromodernist pieces which Kyle Gann types accuse of babbling meaninglessly to itself. The chamber orchestra eventually picks up the pace and volume with some clambering up the stringboard and holding of tremolos at the top; once this settles down and the previous mood returns, there’s some sense of the iridescent tints suggested by Staud’s title. All it takes sometimes is a contrast. More specifically, the idea of hues comes from the burnt wood sculptures of David Nash, whose work I once saw an exhibition of (in the English Lake District, a great place to show Nash), but Staud doesn’t anchor this stimulus too precisely. Whether related to Nash or not, the string writing and Staud’s use of the three percussionists which round out his chamber orchestra lend a strong feel of earth elements.

Meister gave this score about as strong a sense of direction as I imagine is possible to give. The violin part is quite challenging and was written for Midori, who was unshowy to a fault (the piece is surely many times more difficult than it sounded). She also tapped into the piece’s stillness more convincingly than Meister and the orchestra managed. Teasing out Staud’s closing gesture of an ethereal trill, she made time itself stand still.

Seb Smallshaw

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