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Music Neither Peasant Nor Poet

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/01/2013 -  & February 16, 17, 2013 (Vienna)
Franz von Suppé: Poet and Peasant: Overture
Richard Strauss: Ich liebe dich, Opus 37, No. 2 – Liebeshymnus, Opus 32, No. 3 – Verführung. Opus 33, No. 1 – Winterliebe, Opus 48, No. 5
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Opus 70

Herbert Lippert (Tenor)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor)

H. Lippert (© www.herbertlippert.com)

Franz von Suppé wrote far more than his two overtures, Light Cavalry and Poet and Peasant. Yet that music is as recognizable as Rossini’s William Tell, and for the same reason. No matter how I tried to hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play Poet and Peasant last night, I could hear galloping horses (in black and white), ballroom dances (usually a cotillion of Southern Confederates and their wives) and landscapes of the silent silver screen.

That is quite unfair, of course. The waltz of Poet and Peasant is as good as any Johann Strauss waltz, the opening brass choir could have been written by Weber, and the whole overture is scintillating–or should have been scintillating.

Alas, for this rare chance to hear Von Suppé in the flesh (I can’t think of any time I’ve heard it in New York save at revivals of 1920’s movies), the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra wasn’t at their best. Yes, the opening brass was brassy enough, and Tamás Varga, the First Chair cellist, gave his long solo with excitement, passion and the most beautiful tone.

From then, conductor Franz Welser-Möst was dealing with an orchestra that seemed reluctant to give the main section of the overture that sharp, electric punch which makes this operetta opening either lively or exciting.

Not that a lackadaisical attitude of the strings was enough to destroy such a surprisingly well-written piece in the first of three concerts given by the orchestra this weekend. That was to come in the second half.

In the meantime, Herbert Lippert, the Austrian tenor who I don’t believe has sung here before, made some startlingly good sounds in four songs, rarely played but beautifully orchestrated by Richard Strauss. Mainly written before 1900, they were orchestrated at various times in Strauss’s life, with enough variety to show off Mr. Lippert’s frequently stunning voice.

Most stunning of all were the opening Ich Liebe Dich, and the closing Winterliebe which blaze forth with Heldentenor force. This is obviously Mr. Lippert’s forte (so to speak), because in the long passionate Verführung, the voice frequently sank below the orchestra. The final bars, though, reflecting the final notes of the Four Last Songs, had the tenderness and delicacy for which Strauss was master.

I hesitate to speak of the Vienna Phil’s performance of Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony. Perhaps it needs a Czech conductor of a Czech orchestra, or perhaps it needs a sensitive soul like Solti to conduct. But while this is known as Dvorák’s “tragic” symphony, it still has the ineluctable charm from which Dvorák could never escape.

Neither Mr. Welser-Möst nor the Vienna Phil ever even attempted such charm. This was a tight, dry performance. The contours of the first movement themes were hidden amidst the heavy symphonic playing, the Poco adagio was taken at an Allegretto pace, eschewing the chance for breathing or expansion.

The third movement has such a bumptious, devilishly danceable aura that no orchestra can fail. But here, the conductor and orchestra played it like the rest, with a heavy beat, and a cloggy orchestral palette. Mr. Welser-Möst plucked out some excitement for the finale, but by then it was too late. Antonín Dvorák had metamorphosed into a middle European late 19th Century symphonist, rather than that superb avatar of beguilement and charm.

Harry Rolnick



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