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Ionarts-at-Large: Aussies Rock Viennese Classics in Vienna

“Haydn solves all Problems!”

After getting happily bogged down in questions of audience, expectation, tradition, (bad) listening habits, and how to bring ears to repertoire they are likely to love but not know, time runs out for the brief interview with Richard Tognetti, backstage at the Wiener Konzerthaus, because he is off to practice before the first of two concerts—the last of the orchestra’s European tour. So I turn my last two points of proposed discussion (the above Haydn-utterance and “Chamber music is at the heart of music-appreciation”) into Yes-or-No answers.
available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Keyboard Concerti v.2 (BWV1053-57),
Angela Hewitt / Australian CO

Tognetti jumps in with the affirmative. “I couldn’t agree more.” He elaborates in the doorway: “True for listeners, but also for musicians… and if you can play Haydn well, you can play anything. And an orchestra doesn’t play Haydn well, do we trust them with the rest of the program?”

I’d forgotten that the Australian Chamber Orchestra (first appearing on my radar, on record, 10 years ago) performed a Haydn Symphony to open its Konzerthaus-concert, otherwise I might have less emphasized the point of orchestra abusing Haydn as the throw-away, instead of playing it last, where it belongs. Then again, if you play Haydn like the ACO ended up playing him, orchestras might as well play it wherever they please. No complauding™* necessary.

Said Haydn from the ACO, the “Chicken” Symphony No.83—was harsh, in the better, electrifying sense, with dynamic liveliness and spunk, pianissimo tic-tocs in the Andante that one might expect in a really HIP and truly great Four Seasons performance, a choosing of character over beauty everywhere, but with plenty beauty still, and a finale with instrumentalists like rambunctious doggies tearing at a piece of expensive curtain. What an appetizer. The applause at the end of the opening Allegro a.) proved that particular interpretative approach right, b.) was historically informed and correct audience behavior and c.) beat the hell out of the non-applause-but-awkward-coughing between other movements one gets, here and there and elsewhere.

I might also have checked, before the interview, to see what piano Kristian Bezuidenhout would be using. If so, I might have been less surprised to find one of the Steinways of the Konzerthaus* on stage, instead of one of the marvelous Paul McNulty instruments that Bezuidenhout regularly plays. But being a man of supreme musicality and possessing a touch that finds even in a modern Steinway’s inner Hammerklavier, Bezuidenhout doesn’t take more than a couple of bars to turn initial disappointment into a sort of carefree, even mindless enjoyment. Enjoyment of Mozart’s C major Piano Concert K.415, to be specific… a concerto with an excellent wonderfulness-to-scarcity-of-performance ratio.

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W.G.Mozart, Keyboard Concerti v.1 (Nos.17, 22),
K.Bezuidenhout / Freiburg BO
Harmonia Mundi

available at Amazon
W.G.Mozart, Keyboard Concerti v.7 (Nos.6, 13, 16)),
C.Zacharias / OdCh Lausanne

K.415 was written as part of a trio of his first piano concertos for Vienna; important to Mozart but not all that successful, financially. Particularly delightful about it, after bits of C major trumpet-and-timpani-assisted shiny grandiosity, is the coy way the piano takes leave of the stage; almost apologetic and in any case using the back exit. By the time the applause subsides, the pianist has every chance of already having reached his hotel room. Not that Bezuidenhout actually did that, but it does—refreshingly—preclude an encore. (Except perhaps something from Messiaen’s Catalogue d'oiseaux, obliterating the music into pure color. But that isn’t really Bezuidenhout’s cup of tea.) The delivery, including adroit agogic rests, had a fresh delicacy about it, an alert gentleness that wasn’t world-altering, gush-about-it-for-years kind of stuff, but simple and in being so simply wonderful… and still a little better the next night.

After that, before the concluding Mozart Symphony, the ACO wedged Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet into the program of a die-in-the-wool classical-only subscription audience: Something to cleanse the palate for the connoisseur, but more something to cleanse one’s throat for the majority. On the first night, it was just disinterested commotion. On the second night, apparently the one with the even more conservative subscription holders, it turned into something rather more like active sabotage: wilfull expressions of disapproval by way of ostentatiously rattling with pearl bracelets, rummaging in bags, and incessant, bravura expectorations: The phlegm was thick in the air, and it was safest to duck and put all one’s hope into the ingenious brevity of Webern. On the first night, where following the piece was still easier, it sounded bird-like lovely, pointed, without compromise to its hundred year old modernity, and yet still with dashes of sweetness. So much music in under ten minutes! Webern an acquired taste, granted, and it’s silly to think or expect otherwise. But once you have got it, it’s really rather satisfying to listen for the highly concentrated elegance and the occasional hint of Tristan & Isolde popping up.

The Mozart Symphony in A major, K.201, is arguably the first great Mozart symphony. Good stuff, pleasant to hear on more than one occasion, and especially so in such a spirited, quicksilver performance, with only now the first few minor flubs making themselves audible. It was, on the first night, a little more refined than the Haydn, which is to say: a little less played for effect, with gentle flexible buoyancy or perhaps: less exaggeration. “For better or worse” I might have said then—but the second night showed the same work with the gloves entirely off and was even more satisfying. My seat neighbor and Vienna concert veteran of some seven years claimed outright never to have heard a Symphony of Mozart’s (or Haydn’s, for that matter) played better in concert, in this town. Where the ACO had sounded like an amplified string quartet in the Webern, they now blew their cheeks and sounded like a big band and brought the two concerts to a rousing finish.

Indeed, thanks be those Aussies for showing up in Vienna and showing those who came how Viennese School (1 & 2) ought to sound. Not one orchestra in town wouldn’t not benefit from learning a thing or two or three from these performances.nbsp;

(* …one of which Yuja Wang had attempted, if not entirely succeeded, in destroying the night before.)

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