Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall Review

By Jonathan Spira on 8 October 2010
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edited 088Last week’s visit by the Wiener Philharmoniker, as the Vienna Philharmonic prefers to be called, was unusual in several respects.

It was the vaunted ensemble’s second visit to New York in 2010 (for the past few years, the orchestra has arrived at the beginning of the year). There were four concerts this time (usually there are three). The first two were conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustavo Dudamel led the final two.

The second concert of the series was also the only one that I can recall where the conductor’s score fell off his stand onto the stage floor. Mr. Harnoncourt, who is quite tall, was not using a podium so all he had to do was reach down and pick it up. During the fall and the ensuing paper shuffling, the orchestra did not miss a beat. Indeed, one has to wonder if it truly matters who, if anyone, is conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker as the ensemble can hold its own in the face of a crisis.

The orchestra’s selection of a piece, Má vlast, by Bedřich Smetana, was unusual in that the work is not often heard in U.S. concert halls. The piece was performed with an unfortunate interruption (known as an intermission) after the third movement. When I attended a performance by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Česká filharmonie) performing Má vlast this past May in the Rudolfinum in Prague, however, it was played without interruption.

Má vlast, traditionally translated as My Country although it more accurately would be My Land or My Home, is a set of six symphonic poems composed by Smetana in the 1870s. Although the second poem, Vltava (known more widely as the Moldau), is performed and played on the radio by itself, Má vlast is typically presented as a single work in six movements, despite the fact that the six poems were conceived as individual works.

Smetana, who was deaf when he was working on the poems, composed each to paint a picture of the Bohemian countryside. Each movement is infused with the spirit of nineteenth century Czech nationalism and the music and spirit of the age come shining through.

The movements have many commonalities. The opening theme from Vyšehrad, The High Castle, repeats in both the second poem (Vltava) and the sixth. (Blanik) and Blanik begins without interruption as Tábor, the fifth poem, ends.

The third movement is named for the Amazon warrior Šárka, from the Czech legend of the Maidens’ War. It has a different theme, namely soldiers drinking, dancing, sleeping, and then being slaughtered by a pack of Amazon women.

While the first two movements were somewhat uninspiring (the Czechs did far better back in May), the playing seemed richer and warmer as the night went on. The best playing was held back for the end, which was nothing if not brilliant, with much excitement and nationalistic spirit evident.

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