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To God and to ManUnkind

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/01/2024 -  & February 26 (Vienna), March 9 (West Palm Beach), 2024
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor)

A. Bruckner

A single cymbal clash by Bruckner is worth all four symphonies of Brahms, with the Serenades thrown in.
Hugo Wolf

When I compose, I feel like I am Beethoven. Only afterward do I feel that, at best, I am only Bizet.
Alban Berg

First, one must respectfully inquire: Was this the dream of a madman? An act of sheer chutzpah? Perverse revenge for the 200th birthday of a composer?? The suicidal riddle of “Two B’s or Not Two B’s.”?

The answer is: none of the above. In fact, the idea was pure genius. To start a concert with a 90‑minute utmost romantic final work of Anton Bruckner–dedicated to God. And then with a quick attaca break, to launch into Alban Berg’s dense, almost manic Three Pieces. And in this case, the dedication was to a man who thought of himself as God, Arnold Schoenberg.

The funny thing is that it worked! Bruckner and Berg were both Austrians. Both illuminated the epoch in which they lived. And in last night’s case, both had a monumental orchestra, a consort of percussion (used oh so frequently). Both had grand climaxes, both used folk‑tunes (hidden, hinted), both had three movements, each of which stated their purpose and never departed from it.

Even more important, both works were performed near (or in) their home, Vienna, by its greatest orchestra, perhaps the greatest orchestra in Europe. And both were conducted by one of the grandest Austrian conductors today, Franz Welser‑Möst.

Maestro Welser-Möst was here a few weeks ago with his Cleveland Orchestra. (To their dismay, he will be leaving them in a few years.) The Cleveland Orchestra is famed for their pinpoint accuracy, their individual astute consorts, their sheer vitality.

The Vienna Philharmonic under Mr. Welser-Möst has a grander ensemble sound. Their brasses suitably growled or stentorially reached for the skies. Their strings–as an example, the chorale strings in the Bruckner Ninth–have a velvety sheen. More essential for both were the kettledrums. Bruckner may have dedicated his symphony to God. Yet if heaven has those ffff pounding, I imagine God Herself might move to a more gentle residence.

How was the Bruckner itself? Partly ethereal, partly, er charming. Few listeners would credit the composer with great melodies. Yet here, in all three movements, he wrote a suavity of harmonic figurations over real songs. Conductor Welser‑Möst didn’t emphasize that. In the bookend movements, this was a seriousness of thought, a purity. Yes, we had some sweeping moments with brass and kettledrum, but nothing was cheap, vulgar, meretricious.

Mr. Welser-Möst conducted the scherzo with a picturesque charm. The image would have appealed to Richard Strauss. I can hear him saying, “Ya. Those up and down pizzicatos are like raindrops. The driving chords are like a storm. Perhaps Herr Bruckner will sell it to me.”

The Berg Three Orchestral Pieces was anything but atonally difficult. (Six or seven people walked out. Charles Ives would have called them “sissies.”) This was because Maestro Welser‑Möst understood the orchestral transparency, the Austrian Weltschmerz of the “round dance”, and the crescendo of an anarchic hell in the finale.

The “Prelude” was never opaque. Percussion opened and closed it. Vague tones became definite, rhythms varied but were never jolting. The “Round Dance” offered memories of–wait for it–the development section of Ravel’s La Valse. These were memories of tunes past. The shadowy songs, the listless waltzes gave obvious offerings to his later Wozzeck.

As to the finale “March,” one can never be too energetic. Mr. Welser‑Möst filled that bill immaculately. Could one feel the doom, the inferno, the demonic predictions which would arise from the assassination in Sarajevo? Did Berg actually attach his Pieces and the final fffff to the military/political apocalypse coming from its 1914 creation?

Perhaps we’ll never know. What one does know is that Franz Welser‑Möst created a pair of pictures which could have–should have–reflected the books of Dante. Others might disagree, but to me, Mr. Welser‑Möst offered two incandescent lights. One from the infinite glory of his God. The other from the incendiary malice of ManUnkind.

Harry Rolnick



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