About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network

New York

Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Sound and Sense

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/16/2002 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony # 35
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra
Franz Schubert: Symphony # 9
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 8

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

You just can’t rely on anything anymore. N.O.W. that the Vienna Philharmonic has decided to admit women into its ranks, the last guaranteed issue to stir up controversy in music journalism has withered and died. It was mildly amusing, one half an hour before Saturday’s concert, to observe a few straggling protesters in front of Carnegie Hall while the new female musicians of the ensemble were hanging about outside the back entrance intermingled with the men who were having cigarettes. Here’s the article that I would have written:

“If America has learned anything from the events of September 11, it is that the rest of the world does not necessarily share its value system. Principles which may be held dear on this side of the pond may not always mesh perfectly with those of other cultures and the condemnation of ethnocentrism in foreigners doesn’t seem to automatically lead to its recognition within our own national stance of xenophobic hubris. A case in point is the Vienna Philharmonic. While this venerable institution is stalwartly attempting to preserve its great tradition by extending the lines of succession to children and grandchildren of former members, musicians who have been taught virtually since birth to play in a particular manner and style, the knee-jerk reaction of US political types is that the orchestra is somehow evil because it does not allow female members (or others of differing racial makeup, although this does not seem to be espoused as a cause-celebre, and may change over time as Seiji Ozawa begins his era with this same orchestra at the opera). It is painfully obvious that the protesters are not musically educated and do not know or care about the painstaking minutiae that insure the preservation of this unique sound (such as the judicious choice of instrumentation) and would never even be near Carnegie Hall at any other time in their lives. Initially these zealots probably learned of Vienna’s hiring practices on the Internet; they certainly didn’t observe or evaluate them from inside the concert hall. They are probably the same cretins who would ban the books of Mark Twain because he used the “n word”. In any case, the sound inside the hall is still richly polished and dwarfs in its grandeur and commitment the noise from outside.

Other European ensembles are older than this one (for example, the Dresden Staatskapelle, to which Bernard Haitink is now headed), but none make their home in a city so rich in musical history. The Viennese hegemony goes beyond its being the incubator for a remarkable number of the world’s greatest compositional geniuses. Its citizens are prime examples of the arrogant provincialism of the cosmopolitan, an attitude that permeates the mindsets of the residents of Cairo, Buenos Aires and Carnegie Hall’s own hometown (I once saw a sign in an office in Los Angeles which read “I don’t care how they do it out here; I’m from New York!”). Conductors who are invited by this orchestra to lead them (there is no music director; the players vote on each and every maestro) had best approach the podium reverentially or their stay will be a short one. The atmosphere can be akin to that of Cosima Wagner’s Bayreuth: some years ago, one very famous conductor who dared to expound on his own ideas for a presentation of a well-known tone poem was rebuffed by an elderly musician who growled “we played this for Richard Strauss; what do you know about it?” (only at the New York Phil would this type of incident occur in this hemisphere). This steamy hothouse of scholarship nurtures the living, breathing organisms of four distinct periods in Viennese musical history, and, at least in the two events that I attended, an example of each was proudly and defiantly on display.”

Oh well, I guess we will just have to content ourselves with purely musical concerns going forward.


The annual Vienna Philharmonic concerts at Carnegie Hall are more than just musical events; they are socially insular and surrealistically anachronistic experiences as well. A few seasons ago, I journeyed to the balcony to hear Maazel and felt like a time traveler who had been teleported to the fin-de-siecle. Away from the usual suspects and the critics who normally surround my seat in the orchestra level, I found myself in a world of Herren und Frauen dressed to the nines (although some of the clothes attested to a charmingly faded glory) and speaking only German, and could easily envision myself in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal for a Sunday afternoon conducted by Richter or Mahler (actually, the adjacent Weill Recital Hall evokes this atmosphere more exactly with its fabulous chandeliers). Back on the parquet for this current pair of performances, I knew that physically I was in modern New York, but could still feel transported by (and in) a simple augenblick.

Although Carnegie opened its doors in 1891, the ”Haffner” Symphony was not played there until 1923, at the United States debut of Bruno Walter. The Mozart symphonies, now so much a part of the furniture, were for a very long time exotic echoes of the past, not taking their place alongside the operas (and overtures in the concert hall) for 150 years. With sublime grace and delicacy, Maestro Haitink established in the very first passages his supreme knowledge of the Classical style and directed a performance notable for its exquisite balances and dynamically interesting phrasings. It must be very difficult for the brass to enunciate the more modern idiom on those early 19th century instruments, however, as the reading of the Berg pieces was as disappointingly ragged as the Mozart had been solidly grounded. Haitink is not known for this type of music and essentially this noble experiment failed. Even Herbert von Karajan and James Levine, when each had his choice of this orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic, chose the latter for their own highly revelatory recordings of Second Viennese music. As happens here in town with Kurt Masur, the heart is in the right place but the orations seem artificial and stilted. In the march, for example, the expected dithyrambic utterances, especially in the percussion, emerged as too symmetrical and controlled, diluting a good deal of the anti-military passion of the author.

The Schubert, on the other hand, was pure delight. One of music history’s most tragic ironies is that this ebullient exploration of life’s essential pulse, so filled with élan and spirit, was discovered only posthumously. It is the Schubert symphony most tolerant of conductorial freedom, as the dynamic markings, and even some of the tempi, were left out of the score, buried in the attic of a family member and only unearthed by Robert Schumann some years after its composer’s ridiculously early demise (this is truly Schubert’s unfinished symphony). Haitink’s confident beat was the star of this rendition and its variants imbued the proceedings with just the proper sense of that uniquely heady feeling that is the essence of Vienna. The magical transformation in the scherzo as the heartbeat almost imperceptibly changes from pendulum to garden swing was thrilling and one realized that no orchestra could possibly play this rocking rhythm better (it is, after all, in their collective souls). The finale was especially celebratory, the moment when that most joyous of all themes in the trombones is reprised and immediately followed by the violins in round mode (so reminiscent of Mahler’s 7th to come) indescribably invigorating. I might have appeared to be a conservative music critic in a three-piece suit at that moment, but actually I was a kid again, listening to a scratchy recording and throwing my arms about with glee and abandon. It wasn’t just the music that so transported me, but rather the sound: no other ensemble in the world can create this particular beauty. Assuming that there would be encores, which both European orchestras and American audiences love, I left the hall so as to keep this animated joy in my inner ear at least for one glorious night.


From joyous sound to joyful noise, we were all carried off on celestial wings for the sacrament that is Bruckner’s Symphony # 8. Haitink, whose Concertgebouw recordings of the complete set are unparalleled, approached the sublimely spiritual third movement on his knees, holding in his ear from the very first pianissimo the full sound of the mighty conclusion of this powerful crescendo sustained for over thirty performing minutes. This is supplication at the highest and yet most humble level. I marveled at the Vienna strings’ collective ability to play so expressively at such a low volume (this was also earcatching at the outset of the work as a whole). The third movement builds to an intensity hardly ever experienced in symphonic music, an emotional architecture learned at the feet of the master of the excruciatingly drawn-out development, Bruckner’s own personal idol Richard Wagner. Expressed in the natural idiom of the loft of St. Florian, the relentless construction of this Gothic spire doesn’t abate until the higher realm is actually within earshot. This Philharmonic performance was stunning as was the opening of the finale, the air released by the pallets exploding through the pipes of this mighty organ transplant.

The remainder of Maestro’s interpretation was noble and grand, unhurried and reflective. What was lost was some of the visceral excitement of the second and fourth movements, Bruckner drawing an amazing amount of primitive power from only one set of timpani, but that raw quality somewhat tamed in this magisterial approach. Further, the very luminosity which was so apt for the Schubert was perhaps too bright for this type of mystery and revelation. The light of Bruckner’s 8th needs to be filtered through stained glass; direct exposure to this much sun can only lead to burning. Ultimately, the vocabulary of waltzes and polkas translates only to harshness during such profound religiosity (Haitink also chose the Haas edition, whose “purification” techniques eliminated much of the music’s luxuriousness). The same timbral quality that distances the Vienna Philharmonic from their competition also makes their repertory spectrum narrow indeed and therefore I can never think of this fine group as a top echelon orchestra. It is admirable that they expend so much effort in husbanding their resources to preserve a fine tradition, and when it is right there is no band on earth that can claim to be their superior. However, if this non-malleable sound does not fit perfectly, there is little room for leeway and tradition becomes, as this group’s former director Gustav Mahler used to say, just the memory of the last bad performance.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com