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Ionarts at Large: The Vienna Philharmonic in Los Angeles

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing another review from the West Coast where he caught Bruckner's Ninth Symphony--not the least in preparation for the NSO's performance of that work under Herbert Blomstedt (19th through the 21st of March).

available at Amazon
Marx, Orchestral Songs, A.M.Blasi (soprano) et al. / S.Sloane / Bochum SO
ASV 1164
available at Amazon
Marx, Orchestral Songs & Choral Works, C.Brewer (soprano) / J.Bělohlávek / BBCSO
Chandos 10505
available at Amazon
Bruckner, Sy.#8, G.Wand / Stuttgart RSO
PH 04058
In Los Angeles on the evening of March 3rd, I was finally able to hear the fabled Vienna Philharmonic live. They performed in the Walt Disney Concert Hall under the former leader of the LA Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta. The program, appropriately enough, featured composers from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The first half included the brief but charming Italian Serenade by Hugo Wolf and, quite interestingly, Four Songs by Joseph Marx, whose music from the early 20th century has only recently resurfaced. If Richard Strauss wrote the Four Last Songs, one might say that Marx composed the First Four. If Strauss’s songs are bathed in an autumnal glow of glorious farewell, Marx’s depict young love budding, the awakening of youthful “dreams of ecstasy,” as celebrated in Selig Nacht, the second song.

Surely, Marx’s sumptuous music represents some of most unabashed Romanticism of its time. It is drenched in orchestral richness and color and will sound familiar to those who know Strauss and early Schoenberg of the same period. I do not know whether to say this music is a step up from operetta, or that operetta is step down from it. Either way, the remark is not meant to denigrate this sweet love music, but to place it in a genre the may help to explain its long absence from the concert stage. This kind of music is read meat for the Vienna Philharmonic, which easily gave it a gorgeous performance. Soprano Angela Maria Blasi was fully engaged, heartfelt, and sweetly expressive in her renditions. (For those interested, Chandos has just released a beautiful CD of Marx’s orchestral songs and choral works, which include these songs sung by Christine Brewer. Mme. Blasi has them recorded on an ASV disc . Both are essential Marx-listening, if there is such a thing.)

The main feature of the evening was the Bruckner 9th Symphony. It is what I had come for. I am afraid I spoiled it for myself by first listening to the live recording of Wilhelm Furtwangler’s 1944 performance of the 9th with the Berlin Philharmonic. In any case, the experience was helpful in providing an instructive contrast. The difference was between making music on the edge of a volcano that was about to erupt and a visit to a confectionary shop. Mehta presented the Ninth as beautiful music, in a finely sculpted, mellow performance. And that was about it. Of course the Vienna Philharmonic played beautifully, and quite impressively in the big moments. But that is all they were–big moments. I never had the sense that anyone was playing as if their life depended on it. I certainly do not require histrionic calisthenics of conductors, but Mehta did not even seem to break a sweat.

If any music reaches for the transcendent, it is Bruckner’s, and of Bruckner’s symphonies, none reaches higher than the Ninth. A performance of it should grip you and shake you to the roots of your being. This is a visionary work in which one hears the terrifying tread of the Almighty as he approacheth. It is many ways a shattering experience. Furtwangler turned the score into a cauldron of molten lava in an explosive, tumultuous, even frightening performance. (He, of course, was sitting the edge of a volcano in 1944 Berlin.) Gunter Wand did the same in his concert in the Basilica of Ottobeuren in Austria, on June 24, 1979, with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. You can hear his exalted performance on Profil (PH 04058).

If you can take your Bruckner 9th without the cataclysmic, the minatory, the cosmic mystery, and the exaltation, then the Mehta interpretation might be for you. But you might wonder: where is the inner life of this work? This was an exterior view of Bruckner. As such, it revealed very little. God was left in the Green Room.

At the conclusion, the LA audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation, with shouts of bravo. At the end of Wand’s performance, according to press reports, the awestruck audience sat silently and did not move for minutes on end. Which of the two do you suppose had heard and understood Bruckner?

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