Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 6 in C major, D 589
Jörg Widmann: Lied (2003)
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, op. 28
Feb 27, 2013. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, ON — The greatest orchestral concert I’ve heard in Thomson Hall was with this orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado in the early 90s. I remember every single note — Mozart Flute Concerto in D played by then principal flute, Wolfgang Schulz and Bruckner 4 — the exquisite strings, the wonderful horn section, and world class soloists on every instrument. What I remember most, however, was the blend of the orchestra and its balance, perfectly formed from basses to the highest strings, and every instrument in its place in between. It didn’t seem to matter that the orchestra was playing in poor acoustics (improved recently) — it sounded like it was in the golden confines of its glorious Musikverein.
For many years, the Toronto visits of great orchestras like Vienna were too few. In recent years, this orchestra (and others like the LSO and Mariinsky) has really stepped up the tours. A lot. Trips across the pond are now annual events. This time, the orchestra is using Toronto as the jumping off point for a ‘Vienna Philharmonic Week in New York’ at Carnegie. Three different programs. Lucky New Yorkers.
Tonight’s conductor, Franz Welser-Möst is music director of the Vienna State Opera (the musical home of the Vienna Philharmoniker) and concurrently of the Cleveland Orchestra. He’s a very fine conductor with a clear beat and filled to the brim with musical ideas.
He directed an eclectic program, including Schubert’s 6th Symphony, Jörg Widmann’s Lied and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The musical connection of the works was the symphony and ‘Lied’, German composer/clarinettist Widmann’s homage to Schubert.
The orchestra arrived the day before, but from my chats with a few members, jet lag was definitely making its ugly presence known. This was not in evidence during the magnificent performance of Schubert’s 6th. Welser-Möst coaxed elegant phrasing and a wide range of dynamics, and the orchestra responded with very beautiful playing. Aspects of the performance reminded me of what I’d heard twenty years ago. Once again, the blend was flawless — the musicians would be completely unified in balance, turn on a dime with accents, then a cultivated solo would sing out as the rest of the orchestra laid down a bowling green of smooth accompaniment. Quite remarkable. Other great orchestras do this, too, but the Vienna Philharmoniker do it with a unique, golden sound. For a group so unified, it seems silly to single out players, but the principal clarinet and Karl-Heinz Schütz, the wonderful principal flutist, played their many solos with grace and charm.
After the interval, we heard something quite different. The orchestra’s fame has been built on great performances of the Central European repertoire, so, it came as a surprise they included a lengthy ‘modern’ work on tour. Widmann’s Lied builds dramatically over its 25 minute span, from a very quiet beginning to outbursts of violence. It’s impossible for this orchestra to get its ugly on, so the loud interruptions were still perfectly formed and executed. Widmann’s music often includes quotes from other composers (in this case, Schubert’s Octet and quartets) as thorny orchestration and very complex harmony weave in and about. The very difficult work demonstrated why the Vienna violins have few peers.
The first performance of Richard Stauss’ finest orchestral work, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, was in Cologne in 1895. Though core to the German repertoire, last night’s reading was pure Viennese ‘kaffee und kuchen’. Franz Welser-Möst told a vivid tale. Many conductors use the brilliant rondo as an exercise in orchestral virtuosity. We had that in spades, but he graded the layers carefully and the effect was spellbinding. It was during the opening of Till I felt the orchestra ever so slightly fatigued, but as the story unfolded, the excitement spurred them on to a magnificent ending. The frothy waltz encore was vigorously encouraged by the audience.