Perfect Harmony Between the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Mariss Jansons

AustriaAustria Dvořák, Strauss, and Stravinsky: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Mariss Jansons (conductor). Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 17.6.2017. (MB)

Dvořák – Symphony no.8 in G major, op.88

Strauss Tod und Verklärung, op.24

Stravinsky The Firebird: Suite

On paper, this was perhaps a rather strange programme; I am not sure it quite added up in practice either. Yet, with such fine performances of three individual works, I am not sure that that mattered too much really. To hear the Vienna Philharmonic under a conductor it loves – and it clearly loves Mariss Jansons – in the Musikverein is always something special; and so it was here.

Dvořak’s Eighth Symphony has some lovely music, although, like the programme as a whole, it is difficult to discern ultimate coherence in it. The problem, at least for me, lies in the outer two movements, especially the finale. Jansons and his players gave as fine a performance as I have heard, whether in the concert hall or on record, and if they could not turn it into something that it is not, that is hardly their fault. The opening of the first movement sounded almost as if it were an introduction to just how good an orchestra can sound: dark lower strings, magical woodwind, golden violins, and eventually mellow brass too combining with the fabled acoustic of the hall (and its visual aspect too) to create something such as those who have never been here will not know. There was craft, indeed art, in Jansons’ construction of the exposition from what might otherwise seem rather disparate elements. The movement as a whole winningly suggested the world of the operatic overture: perhaps not so bad a way to think of music that does not always bear close formal scrutiny. The Adagio immediately took us into a different world, more profound, more meaningful; it was as if we were entering a dark Bohemian forest, which, as one’s eyes – or ears – adjusted revealed itself to be full of a myriad of colours one might never initially have expected. The forest came to life around or in front of us, sonorities and harmonies seemingly revealing themselves rather than being revealed. Again, that takes performing mastery to do so. The tempo to the third movement sounded just ‘right’, not only in itself, but in the way it appeared to enable all other aspects of the music, its rhythmic lilt, its melodies, its harmonies, to come to life.  Jansons left us in no doubt concerning both its structure and its dynamic form. As for the finale, the playing was magnificent, and the audience clearly loved it. Perhaps I am missing something.

I doubt that anyone, by contrast, would question Strauss’s absolute mastery of the tone poem in Tod und Verklärung – even those who uncomprehendingly decry works such as his Alpine Symphony. (The loss is entirely theirs.) I must admit that I rarely think overtly of the programme, or at least of its potential detail, when hearing this work; on this occasion, however, I did, entirely without sacrifice to the experience of the whole. Jansons shaped the latter so surely, so ‘naturally’ – which, again, disguises a great deal of art – that the flicker of a heartbeat there, the potential song of a ‘soul’ (how ironic, given Strauss’s materialism) there acquired just enough prominence of their own. Even as music that was at least Tristan-esque was sung, one heard the difference, the strangely Nietzschean liberation from thoughts of redemption. (Wagner, Mahler, or, yes, Schoenberg would doubtless ensnare us again, as soon as we heard their music, but that is another story.) A slight pause – a comma, if you will – might attract attention, but never in a self-regarding way. To make the narrative, musical or otherwise, reveal itself in this way is no mean achievement. Orchestral balances were well-nigh perfect, so much so that one did not recognise them as such, hearing only the music – and, of course, the Vienna Philharmonic playing it to the manner born. Likewise, the unforced nature of climaxes proved an object lesson in Strauss performance.

Strauss and Stravinsky always make for interesting comparison and contrast. Just when one thinks they might have something in common, experience proves one wrong once again. Hearing the 1919 Firebird Suite in this context, one naturally latched on to an occasional melodic tag here, even an orchestral colour, that might suggest similarity, only to be shown that the two composers, and the two works, come from very different worlds. Such was the case despite their respective debts to Wagner, freely acknowledged in Strauss’s case, far less so in Stravinsky’s, even via Rimsky-Korsakov. The opening bars, dark, yet, like Strauss’s, never quite inchoate, were but the first case in point. Full, golden orchestral tone meant something different here, and rightly so; an almost Gallic transparency was also most welcome. Not that that was accomplished with any loss to precision. The Infernal Dance would have woken any slumbering audience member: not through excessive volume, but through musical urgency alone. Even to hear the tone of the bells was a thing of wonder. I rarely long to hear the entire ballet; on this occasion, I should happily have heard it as an additional item to the programme.

Mark Berry

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