RSO Wien, Susanna Mälkki
Neuwirth: Remants of songs ... An Amphigory (viola: Antoine Tamestit)
Gander: dirty angel for flugelhorn, accordion and orchestra (Anders Nyqvist, Krassimir Sterev)
Mindful that one doesn’t stay music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain for six years by fooling IRCAM, not to mention Boulez, even some of the time, I am inclined to put my second underwhelming experience (out of two) with Susanna Mälkki down to the variability of live performance. Under Cornelius Meister, any vestiges of provincialism which once tinged the RSO Wien’s playing have long been shaken off, but Mälkki warrants some due for countenancing no slippage; precision and fleetness of response were fully there to the varying degrees required for the otherworldly grandeur of Atmosphères, the more mercurial landscape of Lontano, and the fluid yet altogether less weightless writing of the two quasi-concertos by Olga Neuwirth and Bernhard Gander. But the sure-footedness didn’t extend to ensemble: quite how well Antoine Tamestit played Neuwirth’s Remnants of songs ... an Amphigory I am at a loss to say, as Mälkki cued shrill woodwind and brass entries that drowned him out time after time; less recognizable still was Gander’s dirty angel, a work I remember fondly as luridly boisterous and yet not without its own internal logic, so glaringly absent here. Neuwirth conducted poorly reduces her idiom to a patchwork of oddities but in this performance even that was flattened out and rendered faceless. The best parts of Atmosphères and Lontano were merely static, which is to say that something went right, though the inertia remained earthbound – only the one tremolo entry in Atmosphères sounded briefly like the beating of wings – and there was little temporal suspension to speak of. Lontano’s famous bass outburst was as eruptive as Ligeti asks for but no Durchbruch in any wider sense. With her gaze directed most of the time to her score, Mälkki conducted the musicians like traffic, as if extraneous movement might jeopardize the transparency fought so hard for in rehearsal. But transparency was only really there in the two Ligeti works and no more sophisticated in character than your garden-variety HIP texture; a reminder that when Boulez fusses over the balancing of a single chord there is far more in mind than diaphanous clarity.