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Self‑Portrait of the Artist

Teatro alla Scala
06/20/2023 -  & June, 17, 18, 19, 2023 (Wien)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 39, K. 543
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, op. 40

Wiener Philharmoniker, Philippe Jordan (conductor)

P. Jordan (© Brescia/Amisano ‑ Teatro alla Scala)

A sold out La Scala awaited the Vienna Philharmonic. There was not a single empty seat in the 1,800‑seat house. Though the much‑loved Riccardo Chailly was the announced conductor, the Italian maestro was in the end indisposed, and so Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan replaced him. He did not disappoint.

The choice of the program was original: two works by two non‑Viennese composers that have an intimate association with Vienna: the Salzburg‑born Mozart and the Bavarian Richard Strauss. Moreover, both works were composed when the composers were in their early thirties (Mozart’s Symphony at 32 and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben at 34). Furthermore, both works are in the same key, E‑flat major. Though the significance of that key had vastly changed since Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E‑flat major “Eroica.” Mozart enjoyed a European career: Salzburg, Vienna, Milan, Munich, Mannheim, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Paris, London, the Low Lands, Prague and beyond. However, pivotal moments of his career took place in Vienna: his Die Entführung aus dem Serail was first performed at the Burgtheater (Imperial Court Theatre) in the presence of Emperor Joseph II. By 1781, Mozart had moved to Vienna, where he died ten years later.

The Munich‑born Richard Strauss was closely associated with that most Viennese of librettists and poets, the great Hugo von Hofmannsthal, author of Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die Agyptische Helena (1928), and Arabella (1935), all among the composer’s major operatic successes. For some five years, Strauss was director of the Vienna State Opera (1919‑1924).

Some might think the life of Mozart vastly contrasts to that of Richard Strauss. The latter became the German‑speaking world’s leading composer following the triple triumphs of Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. He deftly managed his status during WWII and, remarkably, even after Germany’s defeat.

Mozart is frequently described as a composer of genius who lived in misery much of his adult life, but this is a misconception. Composers of this period depended on commissions from wealthy patrons. For his misfortune, war broke out between Austria and the Ottoman Empire in 1789 and lasted until 1791, the year of his death. Due to this conflict, many noblemen went to the front, and those who didn’t moved to their country estates, and avoided flamboyance for fear of being disparaged for not doing their part in the war effort. In other words, commissions dried up.

Mozart’s existence was precarious but he maintained a relatively decent lifestyle by borrowing money, expecting the situation to improve. However, it did not, and he died in misery. Had he lived, he would certainly have rebounded.

Together with Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41, Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 was composed in 1788. Unlike many of Mozart’s works, it was not a commission but rather was composed for his own pleasure. Indeed, it has elements of innovation not found in his previous symphonies. Of course, he hoped to have it performed (thereby generating revenue), though it’s uncertain if it was performed in his lifetime.

Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) was his eighth and most elaborate symphonic tone poem. It is widely seen as autobiographical, although he wrote that he was no hero with the disclaimer: “I am not one for battle.” However, all points to the contrary. In an interview with French writer Romain Rolland, he almost conceded that he was the “hero.” For example, he said the hero’s companion was the splitting image of his temperamental wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna. At the time of the work’s composition and performance, Strauss had been appointed principal conductor at the Berlin State Opera (1898‑1913). In addition to composing relatively modern music, he was an outsider, a Bavarian in Prussia. He irritated Berlin’s musical establishment, especially its critics. Consequently, throughout Ein Heldenleben, immense pleasure is derived from ridiculing the hero’s enemies, namely his critics.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 is possibly his most demanding: much more complex than his earlier symphonies and written in vastly diverse moods: from the solemn to the lyrical to the volatile. Jordan was able to bring out all these moods with elegance and clarity. Rather than being written in the usual formal style, the marvelous third movement’s minuet based on a Ländler–an Austrian traditional dance–brings an element of joviality and informality. Jordan made the orchestra positively soar.

Ein Heldenleben is divided into six parts, describing various stages in the life of the hero: “Der Held” (The Hero), “Des Helden Widersacher” (The Hero’s Adversaries), “Des Helden Gefährtin” (The Hero’s Companion), “Des Helden Walstatt” (The Hero at Battle), “Des Helden Friedenswerke” (The Hero’s Works for Peace) and “Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung” (The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion). Throughout the piece, conductor Philippe Jordan ably balanced drama and frivolous humour. In “The Hero’s Adversaries” and “The Hero at Battle,” the most boisterous sections, Jordan managed to generate a harmonious cacophony.

The hero’s companion is represented by the first violin, Rainer Honeck, who produced a sensually sweet sound. In “The Hero’s Works for Peace,” Strauss quotes eight of his works: the opera Guntram, his symphonic poems Don Quixote, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Macbeth, Also sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegel, as well as the Lieder “Traum durch die Dämmerung” and “Befreit.” This is a confirmation of the work’s autobiographical nature and his way of irking his critics. In the final section “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion,” the final theme was played with particular sweetness, and the solo horn passages were particularly evocative.

As an encore, the felicitous choice was the Künstlerleben-Walzer (Artist’s Life) by Johann Strauss Jr. Even the choice of this particular waltz evoked the theme of the life and art of the artist (composer). In the hands of the Wiener Philharmoniker, a work that can sound pretty but trivial was a paragon of elegance and style.

In contrast to opera performances at La Scala, the public had fewer tourists, seeming rather to be composed of Milan’s serious music elite. La Scala’s public, grateful for a memorable evening, were generous with their applause, which was deservedly lasting.

Ossama el Naggar



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