Vienna, that city of bygone imperial allure, more louche than glamorous, hosted London’s Philharmonia Orchestra under their new music director Esa-Pekka Salonen in two concerts of Ur-Viennese repertoire. Part of a series entitled “Vienna, City of Dreams”, the orchestra has embarked on exploring and explaining repertoire that is quintessential for Vienna around the turn of the last century, the Vienna of the Secession, the Vienna that the Second Viennese School was borne out of, the Vienna of Freud and Jung (hence “Dreams”), Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Karl Kraus, Mahler and Schoenberg.
Only Gustav Mahler’s works are unambiguously popular among this repertoire, while Schoenberg’s name alone (never mind Berg and Webern) still puts the fear of dissonance into the traditional, bonhomous concert-goer, and the late romantic likes of Zemlinsky, Schreker, or Schmidt are—fitful and short lived revivals aside—ignored.
With patience and passion, Salonen takes potential audiences to this music via concerts and talks, which are featured as podcasts and videos on the Philharmonia’s expansive website, where a whole section laden with specially produced films is dedicated just to this project. The goal is to reach an audience well beyond the regular or even potential concert attendees—but even the most abundant collection of interviews, musical excerpts, and videos can only go so far in communicating the magnetism of this music. Concert performances remain the touchstone for the success of this repertoire.
On March 14th and 15th, the Philharmonia took this music ‘home’, presenting two programs of Schoenberg, Zemlinksy, and Mahler at the Vienna Konzerthaus—the 1800 seat art nouveau concert hall (also including first two, now three, chamber music halls) built in that just that period, inaugurated in 1913 with Richard Strauss’ Festive Prelude for Orchestra & Organ op.61 (composed for the occasion) and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The first night opened with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night op.4, which was more loud than luxuriant: a display of power and force, supported with sonorous sound and hampered by unlovely strings. For all their Viennese romanticism immersion, there was little of the local lilt that would have given the desired Viennese-wistful touch of yearning. Nor was Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony shown at its possible best. Greater precision and more, well, lyricism, would surely have helped make a better impression. Juka Uusitalo’s impeccable diction, though, made following the printed text unnecessary—even during the mercilessly loud passages by an orchestra operating under the dictum “Fortissimo is the new Mezzo Forte”. Solveig Kringelborn’s contribution was equally dramatic if less captivating.
The unquestionably spoiled Viennese concert mavens were out in force on Sunday—and now they were rewarded with something special. No one can better charm an audience into benevolently considering the difficulties of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto as the romantic statements they are than Mitsuko Uchida. With softness and a reputation as the high priestess of well considered beauty, even an audience in Vienna (a city often progressive in production, never consumption) could appreciate her touching argument for the work. Uchida was supported in that effort by the efficient and well organized reading that Salonen drew from the Philharmonia. The work could sound more compelling, still, if every note were made to evolve from the previous one. But shy of this rather ideal than realistic state (Boulez and Uchida with the Vienna Philharmonic come close, Karajan unfortunately never recorded it, my hopes for the future rest on Daniele Gatti, Salonen’s recording with the Philharmonia and Ax I don’t know yet), the Philharmonia’s accuracy and commitment were as good as it likely gets.
The main ingredient in the Philharmonia’s stint in Vienna, and the work most suited for Salonen to show his orchestra off, was Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The orchestra’s loudness factor (that band obviously “goes to 11”), was put to good use right away in the early climaxes of the first movement. The brass didn’t growl and creak here as on their recording with Sinopoli, but was near-flawless and bold. Rhythmic shifts were not very fierce nor returns to delicacy pronounced, but that was made up for with raw energy by an orchestra that tore into the music every opportunity it had. Appropriately raw and gutsy in the Ländler and with an approximation of schmaltzy Weltschmerz in the Allegro assai, the second violins repeatedly outclassed the first violin section. The third and fourth movement, except for a coarse harpist, were world class. The brass section, surely the pride of the Philharmonia, knocked the listeners back into their seats, the cellos (solely among the strings) proved capable of beautiful pianissimos, and Salonen pulled the music through the long arch of the Adagio like a strudel-dough that never tore even in the least energetic moments. Viennese music had at last arrived in Vienna.