RSO Wien, Cornelius Meister, Baiba Skride
Klaus Lang: Siebzehn Stufen (world premiere)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 9 in E flat major, op. 70
The highlight of this concert was the premiere of Klaus Lang’s Siebzehn Stufen, which is fairly close in concept to the Unanswered Question, only eight minutes longer and great deal more intricate. The detail had been meticulously rehearsed and needed little nudging for clarity from Cornelius Meister, who focused on giving the work’s slow-moving transitions structural definition. The two surges towards the end (echoes of La Mer?) followed logically from what came before, but weren't signposted too obviously, which seemed both the composer’s intention and the best musical outcome. The Unanswered Question’s woodwind layer was given over to the percussion, of which there was more than at a Martin Grubinger concert, although the antiphonal rustling of plastic bags – heard in its proper musical context, an effect considerably less banal than the action sounds – was ruined by the zipping open of handbags and beeping of digital cameras. The unwelcome audience participation was a shame, as Klaus Lang toils away in relative obscurity in Styria and doesn’t get as nearly much attention, let alone performances, as Vienna-based composers.
The Sibelius was a little disappointing. The power and projection behind Baiba Skride’s mellow, viola-like tone was impressive considering how little she forced the sound. Unfortunately there was also much old school portamento, which had me stumped for a comparison until I remembered Elgar’s recording of Nimrod, in which the violins see fit to play much of the theme with just the one finger (needs to be heard to be believed). The playing was also dogged by intonation difficulties, particularly in the final movement. Meister didn’t make this score sound as fresh as some of the other warhorses I’ve heard him conduct, but the playing was strong and struck a good balance between dominating and merely accompanying. Tempi were more expansive than usual, but, as with Meister’s Glagolitic last season, the elasticity was too much of an end in itself.
Aside from a small piccolo fluff the RSO didn’t put a foot wrong in the Shostakovich. There’s work yet to be done, but performances as secure and responsive as this bear little resemblance to the way they were playing this time last year. Again, Meister could have done more with the score, but there was no haranguing or getting stuck in motoric ruts (not that the 9th is so bad for that, but there are moments when it can happen). The Moderato was the best movement, with sinewy string playing and a gentle fluidity to the phrasing in the woodwind solos.
For a Meister concert this wasn’t quite as special as I’ve come to expect. But with playing this solid, the RSO Wien is fast establishing itself as the most consistent of the three major Viennese orchestras.