Thursday, February 27, 2014

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - Schoenberg & Beethoven - 02/25/14

Conductor: Franz Welser-Möst
Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden for Chorus and Instruments ad lib, Op. 13
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Ricarda Merbeth: Soprano
Zoryana Kushpler: Mezzo-soprano
Peter Seiffert: Tenor
Günther Groissböck: Bass
New York Choral Artists
Joseph Flummerfelt: Chorus Director

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which is also the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, is currently in town for Carnegie Hall's "Vienna: City of Dreams" Festival, which is taking place over three weeks all over New York City, setting music lovers' hearts aflutter with a wide range of events in all sorts of venues. At least once you get past the hand-wringing about the Nazi connections and lack of minorities to focus on the music-making.
And what better way to kick off the festivities and get in a Viennese state of mind than in the company of its world-famous orchestra performing the ultimate masterpiece of one of its most popular composers on Tuesday night? And sure enough, the universal appeal of Beethoven's superlative Symphony No. 9 was all the more evident at the sight of a full-to-the-brim Stern Auditorium, in which the excitement reserved for the big nights was definitely palpable.
Friede auf Erden, a much shorter piece by Schoenberg, another one of Vienna's musical sons, would open the program, never mind the fact that it was obviously written after Beethoven's Ninth. The parallels between the two works are just too uncanny not to include them in the same program, even in the illogical order. The fact that I almost missed this grand occasion is almost too scary to reminisce. So after I got a last-minute serendipitous reminder of this concert, I joined a couple of friends who were clearly more on top of their schedules, and we eagerly waited for the celebration to begin.

A distant modern echo of Beethoven's Ninth, Arnold Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden is an eight-minute work initially written for chorus, then completed with an orchestra, exalting universal peace and brotherhood while breaking new musical ground by the same token (Sounds familiar?). On Tuesday, we got to hear the chorus and orchestra version of it. In fact, I did not feel that the orchestra was necessary, but on the other hand, when you have one of the world's most prestigious orchestras in the house, you might as well put them to work. An intriguing combination of lush romantic sounds and a gritty, unpredictable tonality, this low-key bridge between two major musical movements stood up on its very own thanks to brilliant performances by the reduced chorus and orchestra.
Jumping back almost a century, we finally dwelled into the fundamental game changer that was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, the monumental bridge between two major musical movements. From the unsettling first notes, the rich and incisive sounds coming from the orchestra under the energetic baton of Franz Welser-Möst came out utterly familiar, yet still exuded an eternal freshness. What was considered radical then still touches with its boldness and grandeur, vastness and spirituality. Add to that the complete deafness of the composer at the time, and one realizes that the Ninth really was an unique endeavor and a sheer miracle. As old pros at Beethoven as can be, the musicians proved they had a seamless connection to the Viennese master by delivering a voluptuous, vibrant and seemingly effortless performance of his epic swan song.
That being said, the singing parts were expertly filled with a splendid New York Choral Artists chorus, which presented a flawlessly united and all-powerful front, and four impeccable soloists, with a special mention for bass Günther Groissböck, who launched the gloriously uplifting "Ode to Joy" with force and authority. Despite an ovation as rousing as the work itself, there were no encores, but then again, what do you play after THAT?

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