Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach October 12, 2011Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
Tags: Brahms, Christoph Eschenbach, Classical Music, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler, Schubert, Tragic Overture, Vienna Philharmonic
|October 9th, 2011|
|Concert Hall,Hong KongCultural Centre|
|Johannes Brahms||Tragic Overture, Op. 81|
|Franz Schubert||Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, ‘Unfinished’|
|Andante con moto|
|Gustav Mahler||11 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn|
|Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach|
It’s no surprise that the programme for Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s visit to Hong Kong should consist of well-known works by composers closely related to its home city; it is quite something else to hear the orchestra’s unique interpretation of these works.
Together with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic is probably the pre-eminent custodian of the Germanic tradition in the classical music repertoire. Apart from conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s trademark black tunic making him look like a character out of Star Trek, everything about the orchestra is traditional – period instruments, straight-down-the-line interpretation, and respect for the composers’ intentions.
Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Op. 81, supposedly a companion to the jubilant Academic Festival Overture, is dark, brooding and sometimes turbulent, but not tragic in the sense of death and destruction. In the hands of a less sensitive and capable conductor, it can easily become 15 minutes of unwieldy thickness. Under the stewardship of Christoph Eschenbach and the Vienna Philharmonic, however, the overture was sufficiently depressing, but not overwhelmingly distraught. They managed to wind their way through the various moods with enough contrast and sensitivity to make the work interesting. The gentleness of the sound produced by the orchestra’s period instruments also helped reduce the sense of ponderousness. The lower strings, in particular, were lush without being dense.
We may never know whether Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is genuinely “unfinished”. All we do know is that his friend Anselm Hünterbrenner didn’t tell anyone about it until decades after his death, and that he had the score for only two full movements. Given Schubert’s first six symphonies, and the grandeur of the 9th, the Symphony No. 8 seems to be a “transitional” work – between the early attempts conforming to the classical symphonic form to the artistic breakthrough of the “Great” C Major symphony.
Even when in its most depressed state, Schubert’s music sighs, rather than weeps, as Brahms’ does; or wails, as Mahler’s. The Vienna Philharmonic’s approach was almost gingerly. The first movement began with a nondescript theme on the lower strings, followed by a clear statement by oboes and clarinets. There was good articulation of contrast between glow and gloom without high drama, and of lyricism without sentimentality.
The horns and the oboes stood out in the second movement, which featured two main themes, one light and resigned, and the other emphatic. Even in delivering the airy parts of the movement, the orchestra maintained a sense of dignity. In the more serious parts, soothing tenderness underlined the gravity.
Baritone Matthias Goerne joined the orchestra in 11 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Mahler. Des Knaben, a collection of folk poems by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, was a rich source of inspiration for Mahler, providing material for his second, third and fourth symphonies. Compared with his later song symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, Des Knaben’s orchestration is light, giving the voice parts due exposure.
Goerne’s smooth and fluid tone flowed like water in a stream, with a range that reached deep into the territory of the bass. He manipulated inflections effectively to suit the different emotional contents of the songs, from the sombre death march of Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Night Song) to the overt humour of Lob Des hohen Verstandes (Praise of High Intelligence), which reminded me of Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja from Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Deserving particular mention were Rheinlegendchen (Little Rhein Legend), in which Goerne delicately shaped an air of magic and idyllic beauty, and Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the fine trumpets blow), in which he glided through a glowing melody of lulling romance. I only wish that his diction was a little clearer.
The Vienna Philharmonic celebrated the success of its visit with an encore of Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, a staple in the orchestra’s repertoire. With his somewhat robotic conducting style, Christoph Eschenbach has brought the orchestra into the 21st century while preserving its precious heritage.