Sunday, 17 February 2013

FWM/Wiener Philharmoniker: The Bruckner Problem Complexified

Musikverein, 13/2/2013

Franz Welser-Möst

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Wiener Philharmoniker

Berg: Violin Concerto
Bruckner: Symphony no. 4 (1888 version, ed. Korstvedt)

In der Wiener Oper, im Wiener Burgtheater wurde nichts übersehen; jede falsche Note wurde sofort bemerkt, jeder unrichtige Einsatz, jede Kürzung gerügt, und diese Kontrolle nicht etwa nur bei den Premieren durch die professionellen Kritiker geübt, sondern Tag für Tag durch das wachsame und durch ständiges Vergleichen geschärfte Ohr des ganzen Publikums. Während im Politischen, im Administrativen, in den Sitten alles ziemlich gemütlich zuging, und man gutmütig gleichgültig war gegen jede „Schlamperei“ und nachsichtig gegen jeden Verstoß, gab es in künstlerischen Dingen keinen Pardon; hier war die Ehre der Stadt im Spiel. Jeder Sänger, jeder Schauspieler, jeder Musiker mußte ununterbrochen sein Äußerstes geben, sonst war er verloren. Es war herrlich, in Wien ein Liebling zu sein, aber es war nicht leicht, Liebling zu bleiben; ein Nachlassen wurde nicht verziehen. Und dieses Wissen um das ständige und mitleidlose Überwachtsein zwang jedem Künstler in Wien sein Äußerstes ab und gab dem Ganzen das wunderbare Niveau.

So blathers Stefan Zweig in Die Welt von Gestern about Vienna’s cultural heyday, likening its bourgeois base to parasitic loggionisti. Were the Wienerinnen and Wiener of today so fastidious they might very well recognize that performances of Bruckner 4 stand or fall on decent standards of brass playing, and that between the rock of complacency and hard place that is the infernal Wiener Horn, this familiar corner of the Austro-German canon has for a while not been the impregnable core repertoire the Vienna Philharmonic so firmly avows it to be. At the Musikverein on Wednesday, clean brass entries were like hen’s teeth and with notes falling in all manner of unusual orders, the horns appeared to be improvising a new critical edition (nominally the orchestra uses Korstvedt nowadays). As farce, this rivalled the Messiah on crack.

Franz Welser-Möst is, like Bruckner, an Upper Austrian and rarely misses an opportunity to declare a deep-seated connection. But authority as a Bruckner conductor was only fitfully apparent, and his one moment of transporting power confined to the final coda, which rose ex nihilo, and the small hairs on the back of the neck along with it. Elsewhere tempi were uneven and pacing poorly judged, particularly the halting parts of the first movement, a clipped Andante shorn of its elegiac beauty, and throwing meter to the wind, the Scherzo’s second theme done as a Rosenkavalier waltz manqué. An awkward transition led to a Ländler taken at a listless crawl. Welser-Möst purportedly considers Bruckner to be the grandfather of minimalism and that was shown clearly enough at the beginning of the fourth movement – pure Nixon in China in grinding, gunmetal-grey fashion, collapsing anticlimactically into a unison theme styled after John Williams. Thereafter the bulk of this movement, on paper one of Bruckner’s most thematically subtle and tightly integrated finales, was over-protracted and inscrutable in the asymmetrical, phlegmatic style comparable only to the previous occasions I’ve heard Welser-Möst as a symphonic conductor. Much more could have been made of the coda’s soft cymbal strokes, one of the 1888 version’s more phantasmagoric touches, had the requisite timing and string timbre been there, and if the earlier cymbal crash was observed I missed it. At any rate tempi and textures bore limited resemblance to this edition as I’m familiar with it.

The Berg Violin Concerto brought more secure playing, and the conducting was, if not always solidly kapellmeisterisch, at least unequivocally a product of human consciousness. Sinkovicz, with recourse to a phenomenally ignorant statement about Adorno on Berg’s ‘Stilbrüche’, asserts that this performance will go down in history; to me the playing and conducting sounded like a pianist who has yet to wrap his or her head around the Berg piano sonata, overpedalling everything and randomly latching on, with exaggerated expressive emphasis, to the most texturally striking intervallic patterns. The close of the Allegretto was blasted through and its final chord – a sister to moments in Wozzeck and Lulu that hardly need pointing out – permitted no opportunity to sink in, while, as eccentric compensation, the opening of the Allegro was Act III of Lulu on anabolic steroids. The seconds’ whole-tone phrases, usually whispered, were played belligerently and as such dovetailed feebly with ‘Es ist genug’ (as in the Bruckner, Daniel Ottensamer, principal clarinettist for the night, was however excellent), but following the chorale things became more convincingly Bergian. Brass at the end achieved exemplary line, indeed something close to the elusive Second Viennese School Hauch, had balance not been so loudly and indifferently upset by the second trombone’s shortness of breath. Frank Peter Zimmermann was fine but hardly spellbinding, an impression crystallized by a coda simply glassy of tone rather than serenely ascendant. Efforts at blending, with sweetness of tone, vibrato that seldom throbbed, and graceful portamenti, were largely wasted given the rough-edged crassness to the evening’s string playing, and though his left hand pizzicato rebounded unmusically off the fingerboard, masterful bowing made open strings a joy to hear. He didn
’t neglect the piece’s dramatic qualities but overall this performance had a pared-down, chamber music vibe and Zimmermann had difficulties riding the orchestra.


  1. "Es ist wunderbar, dass die Philharmoniker mit Zimmermann nun auf Tournee gehen und diese stringente Interpretation international bekannt machen..."

    Aren't we lucky? I suppose all I can do is hope that the two weeks before they get here will make the slightest bit of difference. That presumes they're rehearsing in between.

  2. I’m glad a commenter on that article called him out on Adorno, as the observations on Berg’s Stilbrüche – never made with the glib innuendo Sinkovicz claims – have provided a springboard for much sound analytical work on dialectical relationships in Berg’s music. This is probably actually about FWM, who doesn’t care much for Adorno, though even for FWM’s most notorious Arschkriecher such ingratiation by means of calumny is just awful. Sinkovicz’s PhD in musicology is, after all, included in his byline.

    They’re repeating this programme in Germany and Canada before they reach New York, so there’s a hope the brass at least might get their act together. The only English-language coverage the orchestra professes to care about is the New York Times, and Carnegie, so they say, ranks with Salzburg when it comes to giving of their best. Then again I read the Maazel reviews last year.

  3. Obviously I wasn't at this concert, but I've heard the orchestra live in the UK in various venues. I'm a French Horn (we still like to call it in the UK) player myself and play professionally. The Vienna Horn can sound like no other instrument when played well, it is unmistakable beautifully and peerless and can split notes like all other brass instruments - infernal I doubt, but you should be really careful what you wish for - split notes on a rotary valved instrument sound equally bad to certain unforgiving ears and you would loose the complex and beautiful sound for what the bog standard inter nation horn sound? You have a to crack a few eggs to make a cake sometimes. Can the writer please clarify if they play a brass instrument and have any insight into the difficulties of tone production on such or do you play an instrument, if you play at all, where sound production is a non issue like a keyboard or string instrument perhaps? I really would be interested to know!

  4. Sure, the horn used to be one of my instruments and I'm familiar with its challenges. At the same time one needn't necessarily be able to play a instrument to distinguish between good and bad playing. I don't believe I generally make a big deal of the odd split note and other forgivable slips, but a line has to be drawn somewhere and when the overall quality of playing is frankly bush-league, it's harder to let it pass without comment. I've never experienced such chronic ineptitude from the Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, BRSO etc, and so long as the Vienna Philharmonic considers itself an orchestra of that calibre it should be judged as such.

    The Wiener horn, I'd agree, can produce a very seductive timbre and stunning legato, and when played well I'm not in any danger of taking that for granted, though via the Musikverein and Staatsoper I am overexposed to the Philharmoniker and relatively speaking its mellowness and subtlety does seem more of a standardized sound to me now. Musical ends, too, are as important as timbre, and in this respect I would say that solos tend to leave audiences salivating more at the instrument rather than with the thought that it has really done something for say, Chaikovsky, in the second movement of the 5th. Then again this might simply be a matter of the Wiener Philharmoniker's institutional narcissism (the violins' off-putting weakness is prima donnishness). Other local orchestras have mixed sections, but as you'll know outside of Austria the Vienna horn isn't used at all, so there's no adequate yardstick by which to measure this.