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Deep Forests and High Peaks

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/03/2023 -  & February 18, 19 (Vienna), March 7 (Berkeley), 2023
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, opus 4
Richard Strauss: Ein Alpensinfonie, opus 64

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Christian Thielemann (Conductor)

C. Thielemann (© Todd Gustafson)

Richard Strauss is no longer of the slightest interest. Whatever I may have once learned from him, I am thankful to say I misunderstood.
Arnold Schoenberg

Only a psychiatrist can help poor Schoenberg now. He would do better to shovel snow instead of scribbling on music paper.
Richard Strauss

Whatever their musical animus (see delicious quotes above), Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss both incessantly attempted at breaking the bonds of music to reach alien forms of art. Schoenberg, besides being painter, used poetry, mythology, Old Testament legends and stories in even his most dodecaphonic works. Strauss rarely wrote “abstract” music. Not only his operas and songs, but his early orchestral music employed Cervantes, Byron, Rome, Shakespeare, his family life and his overweening egotism. Putting them all to music.

Last night, in the first of three all‑orchestral concerts this weekend, Christian Thielemann led the Vienna Philharmonic in two of the most vivid compositions by both composers. Both written in the first decade of the 20th Century, both telling a literal story, and both using the most powerful facilities of the massive orchestra.

I say massive, but Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night was for string orchestra only, a reworking of the original string sextet. Yet naught was “chamber‑ish” about either version. Schoenberg created a behemoth around a story which–had he ever heard of the composer–would have been banned by Florida Governor De Santis. Yet one must ask whether any conductor can relate the story of two people in a forest, the woman telling the man she is heavy with–another man’s–child. And he’ll make an honest woman of her, and keep the kid as his own.

Forests, especially forests of twittering birds, balmy breezes and incessant fluttering strings, have that effect on people.

Mr. Thielemann is one of the esteemed exponents of German Late Romantic music, and he gave a grandly expressive performance. Obviously, the Vienna Philharmonic strings, for 250 years paradigms of their type, offered a fervent reading. While Mr. Thielemann has led the great Central European orchestras, he is still relatively young. So this Transfigured Night was never mawkish. The music might call for pauses, for hesitant caesuras. Yet Mr. Thielmann preferred to push his string consort forward, to tell the story with narrative urgency. From the confession to the mellow reply, to the Tristan‑like love duet, we had a human, rather than a musical portrait.

Mr. Thielemann traveled next from the dark forests to the light and overwhelming mountains of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Overwhelming isn’t the word. It is exalting, grand, literally elevating, an endless 40 minute journey to the summit of an Alpine peak, through glaciers, storms (not even Bacharach could depict “raindrops falling on our head” the way Strauss did), and a sometimes staggering adventure.

True, Gustav Mahler created similar journeys without the words “mountain” or “high levels”. But for sheer physical monumentality, the Alpine Symphony takes some beating.

(A personal note: Ten days ago, I had shlepped a half‑mile almost vertical path to reach the great Granada’s Al Hambra. Initially my mind reflected the Strauss themes, but my mind swiftly descended to my feet. Strauss’s faux‑vision was far more impressive than my pedestrian steps.)

Two points. Alpine Symphony can only be effective with a live performance. The best sound systems can come nowhere near a first‑rare conductor and orchestra blasting the proscenium off any concert hall. Second, outside of the first five notes, I realized every major theme of this ascent is a downward theme. Though a genius like Strauss gave it a magical veneer which make it sound upwards.

Mr. Thielemann made the most of those huge climaxes of brass, percussion and strings. Equally, though, this was not a totally focused performance. Few conductors can make it through all these episodes faultlessly, though Mr. Thielemann tried his best. Into the orchestral morass, he brought out those chorale‑like melodies with uncommon clarity. At the same time, the great unison themes for six horns was topped by the strings, huge climaxes mushed into themselves, the organ, timpani and brass, so carefully orchestrated and notated by the composer, muted from the aforesaid raindrops to a quagmire-storm with little more impression than one of New York’s recent precipitations.

Mind you, the birdcalls, avalanches and vistas were never without a sit-back-and-think-of-Switzerland comfort. Yet, sheer power and sheer brilliant orchestration and picturialism is sometimes not quite enough. The Vienna Phil achieved all that, but this was a performance by the notes, infrequently a spiritual sublimity.

Harry Rolnick



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