The Vienna Philharmonic on Fine Form in Brahms and Widmann

AustriaAustria Brahms and Widmann: Dieter Flury (flute), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Thielemann (conductor). Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 9.6.2017. (MB)

BrahmsAcademic Festival Overture, op.80; Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

WidmannFlûte en suite

This was a fascinating concert. I did not always like, or even agree with, what Christian Thielemann did with the two Brahms works on the programme. It was not only what seemed – although how much is this a matter of knowing things one cannot, alas, un-know? – to be disturbing ideological assumptions underlying the reading, but also a matter of what sometimes came across as self-regard, to be seen as well as heard. On the other hand, the Vienna Philharmonic was very much at its best, clearly relishing the relationship it has with this conductor as much as he does. And, whatever one might think or feel about the results, there is no denying that Thielemann has a point of view, which he is able to communicate, almost playing the orchestra as if it were a keyboard; this stood far away indeed from the blandness of much ‘international music-making’.

The febrile urgency of the orchestral sound (Klang is perhaps better here) at the opening of the Academic Festival Overture was something I had not necessarily expected. Moreover, as Brahms’s invention gathered pace, one heard roots in Beethoven, in German Romantic predecessors such as Mendelssohn and Schumann; tradition seemed to live. At times, indeed, the sound seemed close to what one might have heard from Furtwängler, albeit more often with an edge, even a brutality, perhaps more characteristic of Karajan. Thielemann proved more theatrical than both, however, for this was, if you can imagine such a thing, often a darkly, Wagnerian performance, culminating in the world, so it seemed, of Hans Sachs’s final peroration. There was something daemonic to it, quite unlike anything I had heard before: certainly not bland.

Dieter Flury, principal flautist with the orchestra, was the soloist for Jörg Widmann’s Flûte en suite. (Widmann’s present ubiquity seems quite extraordinary. I do not ask this in a hostile fashion at all, but wonder to what it is owed.) Marked as having been written ‘für Flöte und Orchestergruppen’, that is very much what one hears: movements to a greater or lesser extent inspired by the Baroque Suite present the solo instrument with a particular instrumental/orchestral group. Written for Joshua Smith and the Cleveland Orchestra, during Widmann’s residency with that orchestra, it certainly received a committed performance here from all concerned. Thielemann, when he conducts modernist music, broadly construed, is often at his very best. Indeed, he managed to coax the Vienna Philharmonic into playing as if it were enjoying itself; perhaps it was.

The first movement, an Allemande, opens with a slow solo, seemingly full of promise, uncertain quite where it might lead. Joined by other members of its family – alto, bass, and finally piccolo – its lines perhaps retain something of a Brahms-Schoenberg tendency, not so much in style as in idea. The chamber opening of the Sarabande is more strongly suggestive of the Baroque, likewise its strong sense of dance character; its solo line, in typical Widmann style, seems to play with misremembered – or never-quite-having-existed – Bach. A more pointillistic backdrop, this time from brass, characterised the third movement, ‘Choral I’, the fifth, ‘Choral II’ sounding much more overtly chorale-like. The latter chorale is darker in tone, mysterious, uncannily childish woodwind and percussion (Prokofiev perhaps, or Shostakovich) reacting in some sense against it, the flute mediating, even commentating. In between, a more refracted (Berio?), more referential Courante, with ‘busy’ pizzicato strings offered undeniable contrast. The sixth movement, marked ‘Venezianisches Gondellied (Barcarole)’, perhaps intrigued me the most. As if a response to Henze’s mediation between things German and Italian, rhythm and melody speak of the latter, a darker forest landscape of the former, without the demarcation ever being quite so straightforward. A cadenza, not entirely unaccompanied, followed, Flury’s expressive way with the melodic line as impressive as his technique. I was less sure about the final ‘Badinerie’, which seemed to me to try a bit too hard to be ‘fun’. ‘Contemporary’ – to us – Bach, very fast and ‘light’, with perhaps again a hint of Berio, veers down other allies, moves into other keys, but seems to rely too much upon its basis in that particular Bach Suite. Widmann’s homages are more persuasive, at least to me, when they suggest, when they misremember.

Thielemann’s way with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony once again persistently surprised, the VPO’s excellence of playing a welcome constant throughout. Its Klang was very much that of the Overture, with perhaps a still greater translucency enhancing its ‘traditional’, perhaps more North German than conventionally Viennese, darkness. Thielemann’s insistence on moulding the score will not have been to all tastes; yet, even when exaggerated, as sometimes it was, it never sounded merely arbitrary, as it does, say, in the Brahms of Simon Rattle. Again, it was a Lisztian, Wagnerian sensibility and method that came to mind in the first movement: transformative rather than straightforwardly motivic. I loved the stark sense of difference at the beginning of development; suspense was as palpable as I can recall. What I missed – and one cannot, perhaps, have it all in any one performance – is the sense of where this music would lead, of it being but a stone’s throw from Schoenberg and Webern. The stately processional opening of the second movement emphasised its roots in its counterpart in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Thielemann built it into something sonically overwhelming, but is that quite the point? Whatever the answer to that, there was some exquisite inner voicing, not least from the violas. The scherzo was fast and not a little brutal, yet far from lacking in lighter moments. In the great, concluding passacaglia, I longed for a little more Klemperer-like inevitability. However incandescent the playing, the variations often sounded a little too characterised, a little too unconnected. Was the wood sometimes missed for the trees? At least, however, it made me think.

Mark Berry

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