Saturday, October 24, 2009

Vienna Philharmonic - R. Strauss & Beethoven - 10/18/09

Conductor: Ceorges Prêtre
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E-Flat Major, Eroica

Sunday was my last day in Vienna, and I was finally reaching the highest level of music appreciation with a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein in the morning and a recital by Till Fellner at the Konzerthaus in the evening. If not here and now, then where and when? One of the most prestigious orchestras in the world and composed uniquely of carefully selected members of the Vienna State Opera orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic has also come under fierce criticism for its deep-rooted reluctance to hire women and minorities in order to preserve its prized homogeneity. Even so, the self-administered body does not have to make any effort to sell tickets: there's a waiting list to buy subscriptions (13 years for weekends, 6 years for week nights) and single tickets are notoriously hard to come by. I had managed to get a standing room one right after my arrival in Vienna and that had been so far the most elating moment of this trip. On Sunday morning, as soon as I got into the downright stunning Golden Hall of the Musikverein, I quickly realized that I would be standing among not only fellow out-of-towners, but also down-on-their-luck members of the crème de la crème of Viennese society stuck with the rest of us, all united in deep gratefulness for the opportunity to stand with an obstructed view for a couple of hours.

The thème du jour was obviously heroism as the works on the program were titled Ein Heldenleben (A hero's life) and Eroica, and the whole performance proved to be truly heroic indeed. Strauss' pictorialist portrait of the hero's struggles, victories and musing was my first live introduction to the famous Vienna Philharmonic's sound, and its impeccable clarity and flawless cohesion were as remarkable in the thundering moments as in the quieter ones. The composition's unusual format is basically a 30-minute symphonic poem featuring a 15-minute violin concerto, and the result was a fluid, robust, brilliant performance under the eminent control of George Prêtre.
Beethoven's Eroica has never been one of my favorites among his oeuvre, but I of course had never heard it played like that before. Even if I still find the military passages overly pompous from my taste, I'll be the first to admit that the solemn, gripping darkness of the funeral march was unrepressingly hair-raising. But the strings were the indisputable winners every time the violins let their concentrated lush sound soar as one, not to mention the violin solos magnificently brought to life by the dreadfully young and talented concertmistress. Another sign of being blessed by divine grace were a couple of shy but distinct sun rays coming through the upper windows and naturally brightening the artificially lit auditorium, gently bringing some celestial light and beauty to a mostly grey and cold Viennese Sunday.

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