Viennese Bonbons: The Wiener Philharmoniker in New York

By Jonathan Spira on 20 January 2010
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The Wiener Philharmoniker (as the Vienna Philharmonic prefers to be called), leveraging a native relationship to the Second Viennese School of music, brought along challenging and thought-provoking pieces by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern as it arrived at Carnegie Hall this past Friday.boulez conducting from side (Large)

The ensemble was in New York a bit earlier than usual for its annual three-concert series just a few weeks after its New Year’s Day concert in Vienna, one of the music world’s biggest annual events.  The format of the New Year’s Day concert is nothing if not predictable, broadcasting waltzes by the Strauß family to over one billion viewers worldwide.

But the Vienna brought with it no Strauß bonbons on this trip, its only appearance in North America for the season.  Rather, with two conductors (Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez) instead of one, the programs provided a breathtaking lesson in how to appreciate newer music, an area that hadn’t been its strong point in the past.boulez conducting (Large)

Under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, the program Friday night (which this reviewer did not attend) moved quickly across centuries starting with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral.  A late change to the program’s order moved an epochal work from the romantic era, Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, ahead of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, the first orchestral piece to utilize his 12-tone method of composition.

Saturday night at Carnegie hall, twentieth-century revelations were everywhere with works by Schoenberg, Webern, and Mahler under maestro Pierre Boulez.

The orchestra and Boulez played with one singular and extraordinary voice in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto, two pieces the composer completed in the United States and premiered in New York in the 1940s.  Murmurings about Schoenberg and atonality that were heard in the audience before the program began were silenced.   In contrast to his earlier works, which we identify as “atonal,” these pieces were composed using his later system of “composition with 12 tones related only to one another.”boulez and barenboim (Large)

Barenboim returned and shone as the piano soloist and captivated the audience with an encore, Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat Major (D. 935, No. 2).

The orchestra clearly telegraphed Anton Webern’s sadness over his mother’s death in a delicate rendition of Six Pieces which led nicely into a rich-textured account of Mahler’s expansive Adagio from Symphony No. 10, the last piece the composer was able to substantially complete (it was scored by his son-in-law Ernst Krenek, after Mahler’s death).

The final day of the series, led by Barenboim, opened with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, an almost overwhelming mélange of rich musical ideas, some easier to comprehend than others.

The program moved into the twenty-first century with Boulez’ Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II, elaborately reconceived works based on short piano pieces Boulez had composed at the age of 20.  The last Boulez works I recall performed at Carnegie Hall suffered from a high audience attrition rate.  This time the interesting and far less electronic elements kept the audience in its seats and the Vienna’s distinctive and rich-textured playing made the work more accessible.boulez conducting from rear (Large)

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony brought the program – and the orchestra’s visit – to a close, representing all that was new in music a mere 200 years ago.

At its premiere, in 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, there appears to have been little recognition accorded to the piece.  A mere 18 months later, however, E.T.A. Hoffmann recognized that Beethoven had accomplished something new and different:  “[W]e become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing – a longing which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs.”

The Wiener Philharmoniker is a unique musical instrument unto itself, known for its lush and sinuous sound, which comes not only from the unique assemblage of virtuosic talent but distinctive instruments and playing style.  It is one of but a few world-class orchestras that has such a distinctive personality that it is evident in almost every recording.

Unlike those in other orchestras around the world, the instruments here haven’t changed.  The brass instruments are narrower than their modern equivalents and use different types of valves and longer tubing in the horns.  The oboe has a special reed and fingering system.  The drums eschew the use of synthetics in favor of goat hides.  There is a unique playing style as well.  Thanks to generations of shared teachers, the string players have developed a rather distinctive burnished tone, one that is almost free of rubato.

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.

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