Thielemann’s no-nonsense walk through the Alps with the Vienna Phil at Cal Performances

United StatesUnited States Schoenberg, R. Strauss: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Thielemann (conductor). Presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 7.3.2023. (HS)

Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © VPO

SchoenbergVerklärte Nacht for string orchestra, Op.4
R. StraussEine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

The Vienna Philharmonic’s first return visit to the United States, which began with three programs at Carnegie Hall in New York last week, arrived in Berkeley on Tuesday for the same three in their only other stop on this tour.

In the first concert, conductor Christian Thielemann assembled a program that was, for an ensemble that seems to devote its energies to the peaks of classical and romantic era orchestral music, downright forward-thinking. Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht explores the outer limits of chromatic harmony, before the composer turned to atonality. Written around the same time, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie is his final and most expansive tone poem, both in length and in its instrumentation for more than 125 musicians.

Describing in sound a day-long hike through the Alps, Strauss’s complex interweaving of long melodies and dense harmonies challenges any conductor to wrangle it all into something that maintains forward momentum. Thielemann’s no-nonsense tactics kept the pace pushing forward, using subtle adjustments in tempo and dynamics to keep it compelling. This is the opposite of what we usually hear in a performance of the Alpensinfonie.

Rather than aiming for contrasts, softening the edges on the quiet moments and powering up the big moments, Thielemann avoided indulgences, which made the glorious peaks and valleys of both scores come off as, well, less alpine and more intimate, despite the extra-large ensembles. If you are among those who roll their eyes at this Strauss tone poem’s length and its tendency toward bloat, that could feel invigorating. And Thielemann held the audience’s attention with pinpoint control of details on every page of the score, without losing the fluidity that can make the music unfold naturally.

The opening measures, which grow from darkness to a brilliant sunrise, unfurled with stateliness and grace. The big moments always felt like they emerged naturally, even if they never blazed with the fire many conductors aim to achieve.

The colors in the score emerged with the same sort of controlled palette. Whether in solos by the principal oboe or a riff from a heckelphone, a wisp of a violin or cello phrase or the full weight of a brass section that featured two tubas and a row of Wagner tubas – none of these moments jumped off the stage. Instead, conductor and orchestra steadfastly remained connected to the music that precedes and follows each of the dozen scenes.

The storm that whips up as a sort of climax most of the way through the score may have lacked the balance to let the percussion tones come through with their usual effect, but the texture of the strings served as worthy undercurrents.

The final section, as the day portrayed in the tone poem settles into a burnished sunset, echoed the intertwined textures of Verklärte Nacht. This was one of several connections with the Schoenberg piece that made it an apt opener for the big Strauss work. Not only do both start with quiet, deft variations on a descending scale, they spend most of their time pushing chromatic harmonies about as far as they can do without creating harsh dissonances. The music does achieve a plushness, but even here Thielemann compressed the edges so it did not come off as indulgent.

Schoenberg wrote the piece in 1899 as a string sextet (two each of violins, violas and cellos), reflecting the intimacy of the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired it. It was expanded into a full string orchestra in 1917, including the additional boom of a row of double basses in the foundation, and often tempts a performance to go over the top. But Thielemann avoided that here, even with a full complement of some five dozen string players. He never let tempos lag, and aimed for at least some transparency in the string playing.

If intonation sometimes faltered around the edges, the music flowed with enough energy to minimize the distraction. Even as these intonation slips recurred in the Strauss later, the positive side eventually won, making for a rewarding concert.

The orchestra reminded us of its popular New Year’s Eve event with a delicious little waltz (Entr’acte-Valse by Joseph Helmesberger Jr.) as an encore. Truth to tell, it was my favorite moment of the evening. Every detail fell into place easily and naturally.

The remaining programs will focus on Brahms, Bruckner and Mendelssohn.

Harvey Steiman

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