If anyone can elicit great—or even just respectable—Haydn from the Vienna Chamber Orchestra at a musician-unfriendly 10.30am, I should think it’d be Heinz Holliger. Ever since hearing the septuagenarian conduct the Camerata Salzburg at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg some years back (review here), I’ve considered him the finest living Haydn conductor I know of. Perhaps something to do with him being a composer and thus communicating from one bird of a feather to the other?
To hear Holliger in Haydn was consequently the main reason to go to the Mozart-Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, the building’s gem of a hall and probably as ideally suited to this kind of music—if not more so—than their neighbor’s more famous Goldener Saal.
The first look at the program hurt and baffled, though: Even Heinz Holliger programs Haydn first? Him of all conductors, who should be so sympatico to the composer and know better than to abuse Joseph H. as the warm-up, as the throw-away overture? When clearly, to all who hold the composer dear, he should rather be the last pi… Oh! It appears, upon further reading the program, that Holliger also programmed a Haydn symphony exactly there, at the end of the concert! All internal curses retracted and apologized for.
The reason for not placing Haydn first, sense though it makes to bookend a concert with his music, was made clear by the performance of Symphony No.57 in D major which sounded, Holliger or not, like the process of getting the machine lubed. The middle movements came across as tired, regardless of the (moderate) tempos, and the Menuet as heavy. A spirited Finale, however, showed that improvement was just around the corner.
Come the end of the concert, came Haydn’s Symphony No.44 in E minor. And this “Mourning” Symphony opened with plenty of zip… alas it, too, experienced a lull in the inner movements that cannot be blamed just on this listener who, at an equally critic-unfriendly (now) 11.30am, might not have been at his most alert. Haydn was the grand master of the slow movement, but it still takes lots to pull it off. Of that which it takes, there was too little. Again, the finale—very nearly scintillating (well: rejuvenating, at least)—made up for much.
If the Haydn ultimately proved disappointing, the works between did not. Since most average concert-goers are less likely to associate Holliger with the best chance to hear Haydn done well—specialist bands apart—their main draw might have been the two oboe concertos coming after Haydn in the first half. Holliger’s reputation as an oboist still wildly exceeds that of Holliger-the-conductor or Holliger-the-composer, after all. And Holliger-as-oboist still works… and works amazingly well: Fleet and nimble, with an authoritative tone and capable of great sweetness through subtle phrasing, as he displayed in Handel’s Oboe Concerto No.3 in G minor.
Better still than the Handel, where the Vienna Chamber Orchestra capably limped along, was the Jean Marie Leclair concerto op.7/3—cleverly written so that violinists, flutists, and oboists alike might buy the parts and perform it in public. The orchestra’s sudden infusion of a sunny, warm and flexible buoyancy was very apropos to French baroque. The Britten-encore—“Niobe” from his Six Metamorphoses for solo oboe—gave the audience an unexpected but unthreatening and appreciated introduction of 20th century music into an otherwise ‘safe’ half. Fortunately “Niobe” sounds like a work fluctuating between Tristan & Isolde, baroque music phrases, and Peter Grimes. And it’s scarcely three minutes long!
Perhaps it was meant to prepare for the opening work of the second half, a work of Sándor Veress’. Judging from the little I’ve heard in concert and on disc, he is a woefully under-exposed, underrated, and definitely under-recorded composer—and his presence on the program was just about as welcome as that of Haydn. Since Veress worked and studied with Bartók, it’s a bit daft (or lazy) to call his music post-Bartókian; ditto to call him a bridge between the latter and the generation of Kurtág and Ligety, since he taught both of them. But if you appreciate these composers and further have an interest in, say, Zoltán Kodály and Boris Blacher, then Veress should be up your alley, too. His Four Transylvanian Dances might do the trick. Part one, Lassú, opts for the lyrical over the jolly, with a mourning quality closer to the year of its writing (1944) than any dance I know. (Though I don’t, actually, know the Lassú… if I did, I might know that Wikipedia describes it as “generally [having] a dark, somber tone or a formal, stately one.”)
Like the following, Ugrós, it was off to a sluggish start before developing into something lively, even jaunty. It just takes a bit of patience as does the third dance, Lejtös, the only one composed six years later and no brighter for it. It’s the Fourth dance, Dobbantós, finally, that is animated right out of the gates and the most easily appreciable. The work might not have converted the audience to Veress on the spot, but it contributed to making the matinée an above-average interesting concert which, for the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, isn’t so bad.