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.