PASSIONATE VIENNESE ROMANTIC MUSIC
NEW WORLD SYMPHONY CONCERT
By Lawrence Budmen
For over two centuries, Vienna has been Europe's musical heartland -- from Mozart and Beethoven through the giants of 19th century music (Brahms, Schumann, and Bruckner). The early 20th century brought the bold musical innovations of Mahler and the second Viennese school (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern). Spanning the last two centuries, Viennese society danced to the lilting confections of the waltz kings - Johann Strauss, Joseph Lanner, Franz Lehar and Robert Stoltz.
The zenith of Viennese romanticism reached its peak at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when a shared artistic vision and a series of personal relationships among Vienna's creative artists produced impassioned musical masterpieces.
Viennese romanticism and its musical echoes through the centuries was the theme of the concert by the New World Symphony on March 23, 2002 at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach.
Johannes Brahms was deeply in love with Clara Schumann, the gifted pianist and composer. He was also a great admirer and friend of her husband - the great composer Robert Schumann. These deeply conflicted emotions found their most fervent expression in Brahms' "Symphony No. 3 in F Major," Opus 90 (1883). The symphony's opening theme is an evocation of the opening of Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony. Throughout the symphony, the expressive intensity of the music reveals the composer's feelings for Clara Schumann.
This work is the least played of Brahms' symphonies. It presents a formidable challenge to the conductor who must reconcile the score's intensity with a sense of musical structure and form. It would be hard to find a more idiomatic conductor for this score than Michael Tilson Thomas. His performance was filled with romantic ardor and feverish passion. The opening Allegro con brio seemed to soar on romantic musical wings. The Andante had both majesty and warmth. The melancholy waltz of the Poco allegretto had real poignancy and emotional resonance. Thomas had his strings play with plenty of rubato which only increased the expressive intensity of the music. (This was definitely not a period instrument performance.) For once, the concluding Allegro was not an unconvincing ending but a true apotheosis of both the symphony and the romantic spirit.
Throughout the performance, tempos were never rushed. There was always flexibility to allow for felicitous turns of phrase to make their effect. Instrumental details that are usually obscured in performance became clear. This was a Brahms Third Symphony of clarity and depth. It was like hearing the work for the first time. This must have been what a Furtwangler performance was like on a good night.
The New World Symphony musicians outdid themselves. The string playing was full, rich and lush. The sweet toned winds had a wonderfully glowing sound, particularly the plaintive oboe and the warm voiced clarinet. The full ensemble had a thrilling ringing voice - at times like a great organ, at others like an exquisite quartet.
Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite," written in 1928, finds a different but equally effective musical response to the composer's personal passions. On May 20, 1925, Berg began an intense love affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robbetin, the married sister of the novelist and playwright Franz Werfel. Berg dedicated this work to their love. (Werfel would eventually marry Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler's widow. These interrelationships among Vienna's creative community were not accidental.) The "Lyric Suite" is the composer's transcription for string orchestra of three movements from a larger string sextet, edited by the composer and Berg scholar, George Perle.
This is music of the post Mahler era. The opening movement recalls the overheated emotionalism and eerie landler dances of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The music drifts in and out of tonality. At times it caresses the ear with a gorgeous romantic wave of sound. At other moments, one is shocked by the dissonance and instrumental shrieks. This is music of originality and passionate intensity - a minor masterwork.
Tilson Thomas told the audience that this is the most difficult work ever written for string orchestra. One would never have known it from the performance of the New World string section. They played with brilliance and elegance, mirroring the score's combination of musically blinding light and shadow. The violin and cello soloists were superb.
Franz Schubert's "Symphony No. 8 in B Minor," D. 759 - the "Unfinished" Symphony - begins with a mysterious murmuring in the cellos and basses. This is followed by two movements filled with melancholy, pensive and dance-like melodies that always seem to have a shadow hanging over them. Schubert wrote these two movements in 1822 and then abandoned the work. It was not performed until 1865, 37 years after the composer's death. The disturbing, agonizing beauty of this score foreshadows the work of Brahms, who greatly admired Schubert's music.
Tilson Thomas brought out many subtle instrumental shadings that too often get lost in performance. There was a wonderfully unforced lyrical flow to the performance - the long musical arc sustained from that mysterious beginning to the spring like radiance of the soft closing chords. The rich sound of the string playing was thrilling.
As an encore, Tilson Thomas offered Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 1," played with just the right combination of vigor and charm. There was just the right amount of Hungarian paprika sprinkled into this sparkling performance. The wind section glistened in the orchestral texture.
Lyricism, melancholy, waltz-like sparkle, and burning passion have all characterized the Viennese musical tradition. The New World Symphony's concert combined examples of the best of those diverse elements under the baton of a great conductor!