Philharmoniker/Thielemann: Stuff dead white guys like

Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker will be playing the complete Beethoven symphonies in Paris and Berlin in the next few weeks.  Before leaving, they deigned to bring two of them (Nos. 4 and 5) to the Musikverein on Saturday (they played the lot together here last season).  It’s the orchestra’s only concert in the city this month.  It was pretty much fantastic, I can’t really complain about anything.  Oh wait, I can!  Imma gonna tell you about how perfect the Beethoven was and then try to work out some issues I have with this orchestra.

Wiener Philharmoniker; Christian Thielemann, conductor.  Musikverein, 20/11/10.  Beethoven, Symphonies No. 4 and 5.

Yesterday morning I realized I didn’t know shit about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.  No library at hand, I looked for some program notes on the internet.  I found out that it isn’t very popular (I had maybe already figured that out) and that it was called “maidenly” by Schumann but was exonerated of these charges by a British musicologist to whom it resembled the calisthenics of a manly manly giant.  The Philharmoniker has a well-known aversion to feminine weakness, so nothing to worry about there.

As usual, the orchestra sounded magnificent, if anything even better than usual.  This program was extraordinarily polished and finely tuned.  Thielemann’s Fourth sounded to me closer to late period Beethoven than early.  A constant tension rippled just under the surface, a nervous energy and power that reminded me more of the first movement of the Ninth than anything else.  It remains a classical form, though, and the eruptions happened where you would expect them to, all perfectly paced.  The second movement, though, was marvelously delicate and seamless.  The obsessive motivic fragmentation of the scherzo again recalled the Ninth.  The last movement is the most straightforwardly Classical, and sounded such here, with a vigorous but dazzlingly bright energy.

The Fifth is a piece we all think we know, and while I’ve played it a few times I actually haven’t heard it in concert very often.  Thielemann started it so suddenly the audience hadn’t even settled down yet from his entrance.  I can understand wanting to surprise us and try to reestablish the weirdness of that incredibly familiar opening gesture, but I wish he had waited for it to be quiet, I couldn’t even hear the opening clearly.  This was a propulsive, almost light account of the score, never ponderous or heavy or even as imposing as you would expect.  Thielemann has a way of tweaking the phrasing just a little bit so something sounds entirely new, but in a way that also is natural. 

The last movement was nearly presto from the very start, and rather thrilling even if some of the fast notes in the strings got lost (volume issues, not coordination ones!).  The ending was a real shock: an exaggerated ritardando speeding up to what you think is going to be an enormous triumphant close, only to pull back at the last second to a beautifully clearly voiced chord on nothing more than mezzo-forte.  It worked stunningly well, but also stunning in the fact that it was tremendously surprising.  I’m not sure if I would always want to hear it like that, but I’m glad I did once.  It did not touch off the wild cheering a less subtle ending would have, and the applause took a little while to build.

Beethoven ends here, now for my ISSUES (you know I have issues!).  While Philharmoniker concerts are always musically special, I find the organization kind of reprehensible to an extent that I sometimes feel uncomfortable listening to them, no matter how sublime the playing. There’s the sexism,* and there’s the arch-conservative, none-too-creative programming (they programmed Mahler Nine twice this season, five months apart with two different conductors).  But that’s only part of it.

The Philharmoniker is an orchestra devoted to the preservation of its own legacy above all other things.  This leads to a conservatism full of contradictions.  Their image today is less like than the Wiener Philharmoniker of Mahler’s day than of a bunch of white men devoted to perpetuating the canon of dead white men.  (Oh yeah, odds are they’re racist too.)  They market themselves as a luxury product: scarce, old-fashioned, and exquisitely independent from the realities of everyday life.  Appropriately, they are sponsored by Rolex.

To be fair, this is from the ushering
in of the Euro in 2002.

The orchestra is one of Vienna’s foremost ambassadors to the outside world, partly because the seem to be on tour more than they are at home.  Their prestige allows them to claim themselves as representative of both the city and of classical music as a whole.  Their Vienna is the one of Schönbrunn, not of today’s city, and their classical music is patriarchal and elitist in a way that doesn’t speak to the general public under the age of 70 (except tourists).  On a practical level, most tickets are inaccessible to anyone who can’t handle standing room or the prices of scalpers (14-year wait for a subscription, anyone?).  While the orchestra is making an admirable effort in the education realm, will those children ever be able to get into their concerts when they’ve grown up?  Their website doesn’t even clearly explain how to get standing room tickets, the only kind that are easily available (I explained how here).  It is only on New Year’s–the one day that Old Vienna throws a party when everyone’s invited–that the orchestra engages with the broader public.

The orchestra argues that its greatness (they’re good, but they’re not modest) is the result of this very same conservatism.  But I think it’s a shame that an orchestra that has so much to offer so often sees itself as above sharing.

If you want to see the Beethoven symphonies with Thielemann, their performances from last season are being issued on DVD and broadcast the next few weeks on Sunday mornings on ORF2.  It’s almost audience outreach, but I think it takes a wrong turn and ends up in self-promotion, an area where this orchestra has much more experience.

Next: I am busy!  There is much work, and there are many Troyens and Adriana Lecouvreurs to listen to, in preparation (oh hi, London and Berlin!).  I might not get out next until Juliane Banse’s liederabend on Friday.

*I counted five women in the orchestra (of course all except one were sitting at the last stand of their respective sections).  That’s got to be some kind of record, and I have to cynically wonder if it also has something to do with this being a tour program.

Orchestra photos copyright Wiener Philharmoniker/Foto Terry.

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  1. Zerbinetta,

    You wrote:

    "their classical music is patriarchal and elitist in a way that doesn’t speak to the general public under the age of 70"

    Western classical music will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population.

    As an aside: the scientists who mapped the human genome say that 'aesthetic perception and sensitivity' is largely programmed in (genetic).

    In most cases people come to an appreciation/love of the great masterpieces without getting it from their parents, teachers, or formal study and simply through exposure… That sensitivity to music is almost like an aptitude, you either have it or you don't and therefore it is useless to assign blame or censure.

  2. But the important thing is to get audience members that exposure, getting them into concerts in the first place and make them consider the possibility of liking classical music and making it a part of their life. And the Philharmoniker's current approach sends a blatantly unwelcoming message to all but the already initiated, the wealthy and those in search of a tourist attraction.

    Granted I'm coming at this from a very American equal opportunity perspective, which I perhaps should have mentioned in the main post.

  3. For comparison, let's look at the Berliner Philharmoniker's website ( They're probably the Wiener Philharmoniker's closest peer. You can:
    *read a blog chronicling the orchestra's tour
    *buy discount student concert tickets and discount student subscriptions to their Digital Concert Hall
    *look at their YouTube videos, which are updated twice a week
    *read profiles and see pictures of each orchestra member (which helps humanize a group a lot; I looked at the WP's roster, and all I figured out from it was that it hadn't been updated in at least a year and a half).

    Which would a potential classical music fan find more appealing?

  4. Interesting to discover your blog and to read your remarks about the Philharmonic. I don't know if you've read the chapter devoted to them in Norman Lebrecht's book on conductors, but he shares many of the frustrations you express. Living in Vienna myself and having attended Philharmonic concerts and rehearsals, I agree with you that there is something repellent about their elitism. So great is their self-regard that they call themselves a 'democracy of kings', and when confronted with their presence the Viennese public behaves like obsequious courtiers jockeying for position, as I noticed once post-concert when boarding the same full U4 carriage as some players (headed to Hietzing, where a Philharmonic salary will buy a comfortable villa apartment), and witnessing the passengers ostentatiously vacate their seats en masse.

    As far as the playing is concerned, while everything is performed with tremendous energy I will only go to hear something from the canon if the work is unfamiliar to me. I guess the convenience of recorded sound and being able to listen to the great VPO/Kleiber Beethovn recordings at home almost makes the live performance seem redundant, even more so when you know they have the conductor house-trained. Conductors like Boulez are capable of surprising, as with the Mahler 3 he did with them around 7 years ago, which is a fascinating survey unlike any modern recording of that work.
    The other reason I don't see them as often as I might is to do with works outside of their limited repertoire, which tend to be under-rehearsed and sloppy – something which really comes across in rehearsals, where the hubristic sense of 'if we play this enthusiastically enough we can get away with sight-reading' is palpable.

    Still, it could be argued that had the Philharmonic evolved out of their reactionary niche ensembles like the Klangforum, Symphoniker, and RSO Wien wouldn't have flourished to the same extent. I guess that thesis will be tested as Dominique Meyer continues to tread on the Theater an der Wien territory created by Holender's inflexibility.

  5. Zerbi,

    On the other hand I vehemently disagree with a recent statement made by Alex Ross:

    "Classical music has no exclusive claim on greatness and seriousness…"

    Look, there is a lot of pop music that I like (mostly 1980's new wave), but never do I place that stuff on a level with Josquin, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy or Strauss to name just a handful.

    I agree completely with ACDouglas who wrote:

    Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elite enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.

    One of the pernicious aims of the current leveling Zeitgeist is the dissolution of all hierarchies, both natural and culturally determined without distinction. While that aim is doomed ultimately to failure, the casualties it will produce — has already produced — along its doomed way will take whole generations to restore to good health, provided, that is, the casualties have not been utterly destroyed by the murderous onslaught.

    And why is the aim of the current leveling Zeitgeist doomed ultimately to failure? Because hierarchies are essential to the well-being of Homo sapiens. There's just no getting around it. It's in our DNA as it's in the DNA of all living things. And in the hierarchy of music, classical music, by every meaningful musical measure, occupies the very highest level.

  6. I couldn't possibly agree more Likely! Brava!

    Hopefully you'll blog about Medea. Boder is brilliant and Petersen is apparently great in the title role. 😉

    What a scary post by this Ano-person above…

  7. Damn, look what happens when you go to sleep and then go to work… I put in numbers on the comments because if you all are so resistant to entertaining pseudonyms it makes it easier to address you individually.

    5. Very interesting, I can actually picture the U-Bahn scene you describe. I'm not really a Lebrecht fan, but maybe I should read this. I'm still somewhat bowled over by the Philharmoniker's sheer sound and brio. I suppose if I spent longer here I would spot the cracks more. Lord knows years in Philly made me much more critical of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    6. So is the gene that controls the elite people who are capable of appreciating classical music right next to the one that controls who can afford Rolexes then? I'm not saying classical music is mass entertainment, I don't think it is, but to equate it so completely with independent distinctions of class as the Philharmoniker and you do is absolutely wrong. I've done the Bourdieu stuff and know it usually ends up aligned as such, but that doesn't mean that it's a good thing that we should follow blindly.

    I think Austria's massive integration problems are probably linked to their seeming eagerness to reserve large sectors of their cultural capital in this way. It takes a lot of nerve for the FPÖ to demand schoolchildren be taught only in German but also release a statement saying that there is NO gender problem in the Philharmoniker (oh yes, they did that).

    7. Merci, M. Cake. Aber leider haben wir keine Petersen. She is sick, we're getting Claudia Barainsky instead (who is also a fantastic singer). I'm not going until December 7, though, I'm going to be in Berlin next week.

  8. Zerbi and OC,

    Where in my comments above did I mention anything about CLASS ?

    Nowhere !

    By the way, regarding exposure:

    When I started getting into classical and opera in my teens it was mostly through recordings in the privacy of my home. I'd say 90 percent… Why can't curious and sensitive young people today do the same thing? It's really the only way one can truly assimilate and come to know and love the great masterpieces — through patient, careful and numerous listenings with one's heart.

  9. My point was that the Philharmoniker presents itself and classical music generally as a product for the economic and historical elite, and this is a problem, and stifling for the future of classical music. What are your, or rather A.C. Douglas's, hierarchies, then? How do you define your elite? Because it's clear that the select few who are able and welcome to comfortably enjoy the Philharmoniker from seats corresponds uncannily to those who are rich, white, and middle-aged. And that this is largely because that's the way the Philharmoniker wants it.

    Gotta add that I have a rather low opinion of A.C. Douglas, whose contact with the outside world must be tenuous. I have to quote another blogger who wrote, "I should have known better than to get into an argument with someone who writes in the first-person plural."

    Recordings are the best way of getting to know works in detail, but they are in no way a substitute for the communal experience of live performance, nor are they in any way morally superior. I suspect you and A.C. prefer to be home enjoying your doubtlessly excellent stereo systems than dealing with the general public.

  10. It's No. 5 here again. I too find Lebrecht's polemics superficially researched and often tedious, but the Philharmoniker chapter (which I believe is titled 'Strange Tales from the Vienna Woods') is worth a read. It's not without balance either; I seem to remember he does defend them at points, for instance when refuting Bernstein's claim that he had to teach them how to play Mahler.

  11. BPO's youtube page is there to drive traffic to their digital concert hall. Ok subscription fee is quite reasonable, but at the end of the day, they're doing it for money.

    Too much Mahler? Simon Rattle probably does a complete cycle of Mahler every season.

  12. Heard it last night in Paris, very descriptive and sensitive review. Agree generally and particularly disliked the quick opening of the 5th. I was expecting if from your post and was looking over to see when Thielmann would come out even as I was in the middle of the conversation. Still, I was surprised. One second I see CT in the middle of the (at the TCE very short walk the podium), less than 3 seconds (literally) later the music starts while the buzz of conversations has barely begun to quite down. Least effective opening I've heard. The music seem spowerful enough to make an impression even on those very familiar with it if it is done effectively.

    Otherwise superb performance. None of the excessive heaviness one might fear from CT, but still rich full blooded Beethoven. Also the best I've heard the WP (in no small part due to the excellent acoustics of the TCE* – never heard them at the MSV but clearly better than Carnegie).

    Lebrecht is an entertaining read but not to be invariably taken at face value.

    *Great sound, wood, marble, dark pink satin. Looking forward to the rest of the LvB and Alcina.

    Nice to escape from the Bastille, the atmospherics of which bid fair to emulate those of its historical antecedent. The self-abasing Frankie Mitterand's monument to egalitarianism has a very steep ampitheater at all levels, and excellent angels that provide great site lines form most of the 2700 seats (cetainly much better than my mid-priced seats at the Garnier last summer from which I couldn't see shit).

    Unfortunately, the acoustics managed to suck the life out what would, in another setting have been a superb Figaro. The large (for Mozart) orchestra was very reticent (and almost electronic sounding in spots) and singers with whom I'm familiar and whom I've heard recently all sounded just about as bad or worse than I've ever heard them. The acoustics might have been comprable for those with 15 Euro seats and those paying 180, but I doubt that any of them would get an idea of how magical that music can be based on a performance at the Bastille.

    The Bastille does, however, make one appriciate the quality of sound at the Met and the acoustical problems, while always present, were much more pronounced in the Mozart than other pieces.

  13. I will check out Lebrecht–with skepticism–, but probably not until I'm back in the US, because there's no way I'm paying foreign shipping for him. Unless one of the libraries here happens to have the book.

    I don't care why the BPO is doing the Digital Concert Hall. It's not tooooo expensive and it's a cool way to experience a concert if you can't see the orchestra live. And I don't think we should begrudge orchestras trying to balance their books, especially when their method involves getting good and legit performances out there instead of the pops concerts American orchestras always do.

    Marcillac, what did you think about the end of the 5th? It struck me even more than the opening. And thanks for the Paris info. I have not been there for AGES and am plotting a trip sometime this spring, not sure when yet.

  14. I really liked the ending Zerb. It was not, again because of you a surprise, and I had actually been sceptical of the approach as an all out sprint to the end can,if well done, be particularly thrilling. As it was, CT carried it of with flexibility while maintaining tension and while its not the only way to do it it was distinctive and satifying.

    If you plan to go to the Bastille in the spring (and I suspect you do) DO NOT GET TICKETS IN THE BALCONIES) where the sound it very problematic at ever price level – but especially in the Mozart.

    If you can try to get tickets in the side balconies. Its an unusual setup – they are located directly perpendicular to the stage – but I'm told the acoustics are easily the best in the house. The view isn't great, I checked it out during the intermissions, but the prices are much cheaper – 15 to 20 Euro – and given the sound advantage this would seem a no brainer. If you know when you' going you should try to get them soon as some of the spring shows are already on sale. I don't think they're available on the Internet but possibly by phone. In any case it seems worthwhile to try.

    Enjoy Berlin and London

    P.S. The 6th and 7th last night were amazing. The most dramatic 6th I've ever heard and a terrific balance of restraint and prupulsion in the 7th. Again, WP an amazing aural pleasure in the venue.

  15. Zerbi,

    You wrote:

    "Recordings are the best way of getting to know works in detail, but they are in no way a substitute for the communal experience of live performance, nor are they in any way morally superior. I suspect you and A.C. prefer to be home enjoying your doubtlessly excellent stereo systems than dealing with the general public…"

    First of all, nowhere did I apply the word 'moral' to anything. Not exactly sure why you brought that up. Second, my stereo system is plain and cheap — a portable Sony CD player and my old phonograph.

    Listening and studying the great masterpieces in the privacy of my home was (and continues to be) for me the most thrilling activity. Of course I enjoy going to Carnegie Hall and the MET on occasion (I'm from New Jersey) and donate what I can, but that never compared to being able to get to know so many pieces in such detail at home.

    I cannot begin to describe how many times solitary listening lifts me to the heights of aesthetic experience. There is just something special about being alone with the music as far as I'm concerned.

    Why is the communal experience 'better' as you say ?

  16. Marcillac: The only problem with the Opèra Nationale is that their season looks so boring! Almost everything is a repeat with Vienna or for other reasons not that enticing. The Giulio Cesare is the most interesting for me but the timing is bad. The Siegfried would be interesting but I'm seeing the whole Ring in Vienna. I might visit in May for the Christie Atys and Curtis Ariodante, I think. And maybe stop in for Figaro at the Bastille, because you can't have enough Figaro…

    Anon: What I meant was that you are showing a tendency to fetishize the solitary listening experience. I find the energy and spontaneity of a live performance preferable to recordings, which sometimes can be so perfectly polished as to be slightly inhuman. So who is your/A.C. Douglas's elite who can appreciate classical music again?

  17. I agree with the other anon poster, at its best, classical music is a solitary and personal experience. It's between just you and the sound coming from the orchestra. The fact that there're few hundreds people sitting in the same room with you doesn't add anything to the experience.

    Is live performance better? I think the most renowned orchestras tend to be so precise, well-rehearsed and consistent that they sound "inhuman" in live performance as well. Not that I'm complaining, I actually admire that.

  18. OK, forget about the other audience members. You get nothing out of seeing and hearing a live orchestra as opposed to a recorded one? Really??? Maybe it's just because I'm an opera fan but hearing a live orchestra is so much more exciting for me in almost every way. Are you guys all massive Roger Scruton fans BTW?

    Sorry, that's not a real response but I have to pack my stuff due to an early departure to Ryanair central in Bratislava tomorrow morning.

  19. Yeh, Zerb, except the live orchestra, at least form one of my seats in the Bastille* actually sounded, or seemed to at least, worse than the YouTubes and recording on France 3 web site. Still, you general point is well taken.

    *You're right that one can't have enough Figaro and I went to 3, frustrating acoustics and all. As I've mentioned I'll be in Zurich from mid-Feb to March and in Munich/Zurich in June and and will, of course consider the Figaros. The travel costs, familiarity with the casts and, in the case of Paris, those atrocious acoustics will probably compel me to abstain but based on past experience I might not be able to help myself – with the Vienna especially.